Ebola case in DR Congo's Goma is a possible game-changer, says WHO

The case is worrying because the city near the Rwandan border is “the door of this region to the rest of the world,” a WHO doctor says

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The first case of Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma is a potential game changer in the scale of the outbreak, the chief of the World Health Organisation said on Monday.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was hopeful that there would be no further spread of the disease in the city, but he was convening the WHO’s emergency committee to decide if the outbreak warranted being declared a global health emergency

The spread of Ebola to Goma, a city of 2 million people on the border with Rwanda, was a development WHO and Congolese officials had been prepared for, Dr Tedros said. Nonetheless it represented one of the most complex humanitarian emergencies ever faced.

“While not welcome news, it is something we have long anticipated,” Dr Tedros said on Twitter. “We have been doing intensive work to prepare Goma so that any case is identified and responded to immediately.”

Dr Tedros said the UN agency was confident in the response measures put in place and predicted there would be no further Ebola cases in Goma.

He did not say when the expert committee would be convened – the group has met three times previously and decided each time against declaring the epidemic to be an international emergency.

The top US diplomat in Geneva said the United States will “provide more in the coming months” to help respond to the Ebola outbreak, while the European Union ambassador says the bloc will examine possibilities to expand its response.

US Charge d’Affaires Mark Cassayre also told a UN conference on Ebola on Monday that the United States was calling on member states to increase their contributions to the response, which the WHO says is underfunded.

EU ambassador Walter Stevens noted that the bloc has provided some $20 million (Dh73.5m) in support since last year, plus in-kind and logistical support, and “will look into possibilities to scale up the response.”

Meanwhile Congolese authorities in Goma are tracking down bus passengers who rode with a pastor who became the first confirmed case in the regional capital.

Harouna Djingarey, who is with the WHO’s Ebola response team, said it had found the two buses the man took before he reached Goma on Sunday.

Dr Djingarey said the case was worrying because Goma is “the door of this region to the rest of the world.”

Health officials have feared since the beginning of the outbreak last August that cases could emerge in Goma. There are fears the disease could spread rapidly in the densely populated area and onwards to neigbouring countries.

Rwanda has vaccinated about 3,000 health workers to prepare for a possible spread of the virus.

Goma is more than 350 kilometres south of where the second-largest Ebola outbreak on record was first detected a year ago. But the haemorrhagic fever has gradually spread south, infecting almost 2,500 people and killing more than 1,600.

It was not yet clear how much contact the patient had with other people in Goma, or how long the individual was there, officials said.

A spokeswoman for the health ministry said it was trying to track down details.

“It’s a case from Butembo,” 200km north, said Richard Kitenge, the head of Goma’s Ebola response effort, who added the patient would be taken back to Butembo for treatment.

Goma has been preparing for the arrival of Ebola for a year, setting up handwashing stations and making sure motortaxi drivers do not share helmets. About 3,000 health workers in Goma have been vaccinated against the virus.

But in more rural areas, the virus has been hard to contain. Local mistrust of health officials and militia violence have hobbled containment efforts and caused the number of new cases to spike.

Ebola causes diarrhoea, vomiting and haemorrhagic fever and can be spread through bodily fluids. An epidemic between 2013 and 2016 killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa.