At least 17 people are today feared to have died from a new outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Health officials in the African nation have confirmed two people have the virus – but there has been 21 suspected cases in total – raising fears of an epidemic.
It comes just three years after the Ebola pandemic that killed at least 11,000 people across six countries, including a sole fatality in the US.
Ebola is already considered one of the most lethal pathogens in existence, and the new outbreak has been branded a ‘public health emergency’.
Experts fear it could have an ‘international impact’, considering how quickly the virus decimated West Africa between 2014 and 2016.
The World Health Organization declared there has been 21 suspected cases of viral haemorrhagic fever and 17 deaths in the Equateur province, in the past five weeks.
Congo – situated escaped the brutal Ebola pandemic, finally declared over in January 2016 – but it was struck by a smaller outbreak last year.
Four DRC residents died from the virus in 2017. The outbreak lasted just 42 days and international aid teams were praised for their prompt responses.
The new outbreak is believed to be occurring in the northwestern town of Bikoro – 324 miles (522km) north of capital Kinshasa.
Jean Jack Muyembe, head of the national institute for biological research in the DRC, today confirmed the two cases and 10 more suspected.
Two out of five samples collected tested positive for a Zaire strain of Ebola at the Institut National de Recherche Biomédicale in Kinshasa.
But the WHO today also stated there has been 21 suspected cases since the start of April, including 17 deaths – all of which occurred before the outbreak was confirmed.
‘Our country is facing another epidemic of the Ebola virus, which constitutes an international public health emergency,’ the Congo Health Ministry said.
‘We still dispose of the well trained human resources that were able to rapidly control previous epidemics.’
The WHO, Médecins Sans Frontières and Provincial Division of Health traveled today to Bikoro in an effort to stem the outbreak.
A team of epidemiologists, logisticians, clinicians, and other infection experts are expected to be deployed in the coming days.
The WHO has released £738,000 ($1mn) from its Contingency Fund for Emergencies to support response activities for the next three months.
This is DRC’s ninth outbreak of Ebola since the discovery of the virus in the country in 1976. The virus – endemic in the country – is named after the Ebola river.
Health experts credit an awareness of the disease among the population and local medical staff’s experience treating for past successes containing its spread.
Congo’s vast, remote geography also gives it an advantage, as outbreaks are often localised and relatively easy to isolate.
Ikoko Impenge and Bikoro, however, lie not far from the banks of the Congo River, an essential waterway for transport and commerce.
Further downstream the river flows past Kinshasa and Brazzaville, capital of Congo Republic – two cities with a combined population of over 12 million people.
Neighbouring countries have been alerted about the new outbreak. DRC borders Angola, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and the Republic of Congo
Ebola is often fatal if untreated. Around 50 per cent of patients die, according to the WHO. It is transmitted to people from wild animals and can be spread from human to human.
Dr Peter Salama, WHO deputy director general, said: ‘Our top priority is to get to Bikoro to work alongside the Government of the DRC and partners to reduce the loss of life and suffering related to this new Ebola virus disease outbreak.
‘Working with partners and responding early and in a coordinated way will be vital to containing this deadly disease.’
The outbreak comes after the World Bank stated last year that Earth isn’t ready for an ‘inevitable’ pandemic, after stimulating four possible scenarios.
The research was done in an attempt to assess why the global response to the Ebola pandemic was so sloppy and to fill those gaps before another disaster strikes.
The 2014 international Ebola response drew criticism for moving too slowly and prompted an apology from the WHO.
A study released last year also suggested disease ‘superspreaders’ fueled the transmission of the 2014 Ebola epidemic.
Researchers found there was just a small number of so-called ‘superspreaders’ – highly infectious people who infect many others – in West Africa.
At least two thirds of the victims who contracted the virus can be traced back to this small group.