Ebola vaccine reaches Congo as death count grows

Ebola vaccine reaches Congo as death count grows
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A massive vaccination campaign began in Congo on Monday in an effort to stem an outbreak of the Ebola virus that has spread for more than a month.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and a nongovernmental organization that delivers vaccines, Gavi, said Monday that more than 7,500 doses of a new vaccine had been deployed to the Equator Province.

At least 46 suspected, probable and confirmed cases of the Ebola virus have been identified in the region, most of them in the small town of Bikoro. Four cases have been identified in Mbandaka, a port city of 1.2 million residents that sits on the Congo River.

Gavi CEO Seth Berkley posted a photo of the first health-care workers receiving vaccinations in Mbandaka on Monday.

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Health officials led by WHO, Gavi and Congo's health ministry will vaccinate two populations: They will first vaccinate health-care workers who are likely to come into contact with Ebola patients. Then they will vaccinate others who came into contact with someone with Ebola, and the contacts of those contacts.

That practice, called ring vaccination, eliminates or limits the opportunities for the virus to spread. Contact-tracers, the virus hunters who map the web of interactions between those who are infected and those with whom they interacted, have identified more than 600 potential contacts so far.

"We need to act fast to stop the spread of Ebola by protecting people at risk of being infected with the Ebola virus, identifying and ending all transmission chains and ensuring that all patients have rapid access to safe, high-quality care," said Peter Salama, WHO's deputy director general for emergency preparedness and response.

The vaccine, developed by Merck, was first deployed in 2015 in Guinea during an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people. In January 2017, scientists formally published the results of their study of 5,837 people who received the vaccine in the New England Journal of Medicine. None of those who received the vaccine came down with the Ebola virus.

A team of doctors from Guinea that participated in the first round of vaccinations has also arrived in Mbandaka to lend their assistance. 

Some scientists, however, raised questions about the vaccine's efficacy. They suggested the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was so well-contained by the time the vaccine got to Guinea that it is unclear whether the vaccine will work as well as advertised.

A team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in a satellite office in Kinshasa, is preparing to head up the Congo River to aid the response when they receive a formal invite from Congo's health ministry. 

Pierre Rollin, one of the top Ebola experts at the CDC, said in an interview that the vaccine would be an important tool in the fight against the virus, but it alone would not solve the outbreak completely.

"That part should really add another arm to the response. It's not the response by itself, because you still have to do all the rest," Rollin told The Hill before deploying to Congo.

WHO said Monday it needs $26 million to cover the response to the newest outbreak over the next three months. USAID, its counterpart in the United Kingdom, the Italian government and the Britain-based Wellcome Trust have all chipped in money, and WHO released $2 million from its own contingency fund for emergencies to pay for operations so far, the agency said.