A nurse has died from Ebola in Bikoro, the rural town in the north-west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the outbreak began, as the country begins a vaccination campaign.
Health minister Oly Ilunga said the nurse’s death brings the death toll to 27. There are now 49 hemorrhagic fever cases: 22 confirmed as Ebola, 21 probable and six suspected.
Mr Ilunga said two patients have recovered from Ebola, and are now returning home.
Congo’s health delegation, including the health minister, and representatives of the World Health Organisation and United Nations have arrived in Mbandaka, the north-western city of more than one million where Ebola has spread, to launch the vaccination campaign on Monday.
The ministry said it will take five days to target health care workers and 100 registered contacts in the city.
“We have established surveillance mechanisms and are following all cases and contacts,” Mr Ilunga said. “The response is well organised because we have also put in surveillance measures at the entry and exit points of Mbandaka.”
The two patients who recovered after testing positive for Ebola are returning to their homes, though they will be monitored, Mr Ilunga said. They have left the hospital “with a medical certificate attesting that they’ve recovered and can no longer transmit the disease because they have developed antibodies against Ebola”, he said.
Ebola, however, does in many cases remain longer in semen, and therefore can be transmitted through sexual contact for some months after recovery.
Twenty-four specialists, including Congolese and Guinean health workers who administered the vaccine in their country during the 2014-2016 outbreak, are in Mbandaka to start injecting the 540 doses that have arrived, the health minister said.
It will take five days to vaccinate about 100 contacts of registered patients, including 73 health care staff, who have had contact with patients and their relatives in the Wangata and Bolenge health zones of Mbandaka.
More than 7,500 doses are available in Congo, the WHO said, adding that an additional 8,000 doses will be available in the coming days.
The vaccine, provided by US company Merck, is still in the test stages, but it was effective toward the end of the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from 2014 to 2016.
A major challenge will be keeping the vaccines cold in this vast, impoverished, tropical country where infrastructure is poor.
Congo president Joseph Kabila and his Cabinet agreed Saturday to increase funds for the Ebola emergency to more than four million dollars (£2.9 million). The cabinet also endorsed the decision to provide free health care in the affected areas and to provide special care to all Ebola victims and their relatives.
The US Agency for International Development has said that it has provided an initial one million dollars (£742,000) to combat the Ebola outbreak. The funds are going to WHO in support of its joint strategic response plan with Congo’s government.
The spread of Ebola from a rural area to Mbandaka has raised alarm as Ebola can spread more quickly in urban centres. The fever can cause severe internal bleeding that is often fatal.