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World Health Organization raises Ebola health risk to ‘very high’ in DR Congo

The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised the Ebola health risk assessment to “very high” in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ahead of an emergency meeting Friday to discuss the worsening outbreak.

Concerns about the spread of the disease escalated Thursday when the health body announced the first case had been detected in Mbandaka, a city of nearly 1.2 million people.

“The confirmed case in Mbandaka, a large urban center located on major national and international river, road and domestic air routes increases the risk of spread within the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to neighboring countries,” the statement said.

While the WHO raised the national public health risk to ‘very high,” it said the global risk level is “currently low.”

The WHO’s International Health Regulations emergency committee will determine on Friday if the current outbreak constitutes a public heath event of international concern.

A total of 45 cases of hemorrhagic fever have now been reported, including 25 deaths, the health ministry said Thursday. Fourteen cases have been confirmed with laboratory tests.

Outbreak enters ‘new phase’

The discovery of a case in Mbandaka indicates the outbreak has entered a “new phase,” the country’s health minister, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, said Wednesday.

The case was confirmed in Wangata, one of three health zones of Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur Province in northwestern Congo. Previously, infections and deaths had been limited to the rural Bikoro health zone, nearly 150 kilometers away.

The spread of the virus from rural areas into a city has raised fears it could quickly spread and become harder to control.

“This is a concerning development, but we now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general. “WHO and our partners are taking decisive action to stop further spread of the virus.”

The organization is working with health NGO Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other partners to boost the number of special isolation wards to treat patients. It’s deploying about 30 experts to conduct surveillance in the city and inform local communities on treatment and prevention methods in collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Health.

Hundreds in contact with infected

The Department of Health first reported the outbreak on May 8, the ninth the country has faced in the past four decades.

“This outbreak is very close to the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. And we are taking it very seriously,” Dr. Ibrahima-Soce Fall, the WHO regional emergency director for Africa, said Monday.

The Ebola virus disease, which most commonly affects people and nonhuman primates such as monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees, is caused by one of five Ebola viruses. On average, about 50% of people who become ill with Ebola die.

The first human outbreaks of Ebola occurred in 1976, one in the north of what is now Congo and in the region that is now South Sudan.

Humans can be infected by other humans if they come in contact with body fluids from an infected person or contaminated objects from infected persons. Humans can also be exposed to the virus, for example, by butchering infected animals.

West Africa experienced the largest recorded outbreak of Ebola over a two-year period beginning in March 2014; a total of 28,616 confirmed, probable and suspected cases were reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with 11,310 deaths, according to the WHO.