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CDC prepares to join Ebola fight in Africa

CDC prepares to join Ebola fight in Africa
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is preparing to deploy staffers to several cities and towns deep in the Congolese jungle amid a new Ebola outbreak that has claimed at least two dozen lives.

The CDC maintains an office in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, about 350 miles from the epicenter of the outbreak. The dozen or so staffers who work in that office are likely to deploy to the hot zone once they receive a formal invite from Congo’s health ministry.

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In an interview, Pierre Rollin, one of CDC’s top Ebola experts, said the World Health Organization (WHO) is leading the response and coordinating among both governmental and nongovernmental organizations responding to the ongoing outbreak.

“We’re offering them a roster of 12 or 15 people that will be able to go there,” Rollin said. “They’re ready to go as soon as they’ve got an invitation. The invitation is from the Ministry of Health through the WHO.”

The news comes one day after health officials reported the first Ebola case in a major Congolese city, a troubling shift for the outbreak. 

Four years after an Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,300 people, the groups that respond to a new outbreak practice familiar roles. WHO coordinates national and international efforts. UNICEF manages communications between the groups. Doctors Without Borders has taken the lead on patient care, opening Ebola treatment centers and isolation wards in the city of Mbandaka and the town of Bikoro.

The Red Cross is handling safe burials of those who succumb to the disease. Virus transmission through traditional burials accounted for the vast majority of Ebola’s spread through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the West African countries hit hardest by the 2014-2015 outbreak.

In total, WHO is working with 22 governmental and nongovernmental organizations responding to various aspects of the outbreak, ranging from CDC to the Red Cross/Red Crescent, the International Organization for Animal Health and Gavi, a group that will help vaccinate thousands of residents.

The relative isolation of the communities where the virus began to spread last month is both a blessing and a curse for the efforts to stop Ebola’s progress. On one hand, remote villages mean the virus’s spread is contained naturally. On the other, it means that once a virus does spread, responders are slower to arrive.

“We know that the roads are very bad. We know that the rainy season has started. We know that there are a lot of villages that have to be visited,” Rollin said. Travel between Bikoro and Mbandaka “can take from half a day to four days. And we’re not talking about thousands of kilometers, we’re talking about 200 kilometers, or 150 miles. But the roads are so bad that it takes all that time.”

“We don’t know exactly what is happening in some villages,” Rollin added.

The Untied Nations has opened an air bridge between Kinshasa and the two impacted cities, ferrying supplies and responders on regular flights. The U.N. is also providing helicopters to speed responders to more remote villages where the virus may be present.

At least 44 people in the region have shown symptoms of a viral hemorrhagic fever. Ebola has been confirmed in three of the cases. At least 23 people have died.

Rollin said the new Ebola vaccine, first shown to be effective during the tail end of the West Africa outbreak in Guinea, will be a critical new tool to fight this outbreak. Health-care workers will be the first to receive the vaccine. Then workers will vaccinate those who have come into contact with the infected, as well as those who have come into contact with the first set of contacts, a practice known as ring vaccination.

Rollin, who has deployed to fight Ebola outbreaks for decades across Africa, said he expects to travel to Congo this weekend.

Once an organization that prided itself on sending small teams of responders to combat outbreaks, CDC became a much more agile and active responder during the 2014-2015 outbreak. The agency deployed more than 1,400 epidemiologists, virus hunters and contact tracers to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea over the course of more than a year.