KINSHASA – Health officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo launched on Thursday a vaccination campaign against the deadly Ebola virus, according to the African country’s health ministry.
The first injections of the rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine – an experimental treatment that was successfully trialled in the northeastern province of Equateur, where an Ebola outbreak that killed 33 people was officially declared to have ended in late July – in this campaign are being administered in the small town of Mangina, located in the North Kivu region, one of the two areas affected by the latest outbreak.
“Good news! Genetic sequencing of the virus by the INRB (National Biomedical Research Institute) has confirmed that the epidemic virus in North Kivu is Ebola Zaire and not linked to the Equateur epidemic,” tweeted Health Minister Oly Ilunga on Wednesday. “And we have received permission from the Ethics Committee to start the vaccinations tomorrow.”
The other region affected by the outbreak is the province of Ituri.
So far, there have been 17 confirmed cases of Ebola in North Kivu and Ituri, while authorities are investigating 47 instances of possible infections, 27 of which are considered to be likely.
At least 36 people have died showing signs of a possible infection, although only nine have conclusively tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he was traveling to North Kivu to monitor the campaign.
“Under the leadership of Minister Ilunga, WHO and partners are working to contain this second outbreak of Ebola this year in DRC. Vaccination has begun. On my way to North Kivu to assess the situation firsthand,” Ghebreyesus posted on Twitter.
The health ministry said it had 3,220 available doses of the vaccine, which was first tested in Guinea-Conakry after the 2014-16 epidemic and has been developed by the United States-based pharmaceutical giant Merck, although it added that it could potentially access many more.
It is the only experimental vaccine to be authorized by the nation’s official Scientific Committee and Ethics Committee, though the use of five as-yet unlicensed drugs is also being considered.
The disease, which is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of infected people or animals, is widely feared for its mortality rate of up to 90 percent and for causing heavy internal and external bleeding, as the virus severely damages blood vessels.
Early symptoms of the virus include sudden high fever, intense weakness and muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat, as well as vomiting.
The worst Ebola epidemic to date ravaged several West African nations in 2014 after it broke out in Dec. 2013 in Guinea and expanded into Sierra Leone and Liberia, with minor outbreaks elsewhere.
The WHO marked the end of the epidemic in Jan. 2016 after 11,300 deaths and more than 28,500 Ebola-confirmed cases, although it has said these could be conservative figures.