An experimental vaccine has been shipped into the Democratic Republic of Congo to stem the tide of the Ebola outbreak gripping the country.
Health workers in the DRC have begun an widespread immunisation campaign in an effort to stop the disease in its tracks as 27 people have already died from the current outbreak.
The experimental vaccine proved effective when used in limited trials during the epidemic which struck West Africa in 2014-16.
Health workers were among the first to receive the vaccine on Monday and it is now being distributed among the families of those who have already died from the illness.
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A health worker preparing a potentially life-saving Ebola vaccine in Mbandaka, Congo on Monday
Health workers administering the vaccine to other volunteers so they will be able to give it to members of the public without fear of infection
The WHO has this week begun administering vaccines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, starting in the north-western city of Mbandaka, a provincial capital with a similar population to Perth or Adelaide.
The initial targets of the vaccination program are health workers and family members of the deceased, and more than 4,000 doses have already been shipped to the country from WHO headquarters in Switzerland.
The WHO admits the fact the ebola outbreak has spread in the past two weeks from a remote part of the country to an important administrative centre is cause for concern.
But, speaking from Geneva, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasaravic told The Signal the initial response to the outbreak had been as good as could be expected.
‘One of the big differences is that West African health systems had not known ebola epidemics before,’ Mr Jasaravic said.
‘You had health workers who were not trained to deal with the ebola virus, and those health systems were also very weak.
‘And really from day one they have started to coordinate all the partners to make sure all pieces are carried out as fast as possible.’
WHO workers preparing a public vaccination centre in the Congolese city of Mbandaka for treatment
As the WHO shipped out the initial run of 4,000 doses – hundreds of people waited eagerly at pop-up health centres around the city
Two more people were said have died from Ebola and seven new cases were confirmed in DRC on Tuesday alone.
Officials also said the crisis was being made worse by local traditions such as eating monkey meat.
But locals in the provincial town of Mbandaka said they would not be put off their food by the warnings.
‘Despite your Ebola stories, we buy and eat monkey meat,’ said one woman named Carine, a mother of eight children. ‘We have eaten that since forever. That is not going to change today.
Health officials are particularly concerned by the disease’s presence in Mbandaka, a crowded trading hub on the Congo River with road, water and air links to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.
WHAT IS EBOLA AND HOW DEADLY IS IT?
Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, killed at least 11,000 across the world after it decimated West Africa and spread rapidly over the space of two years.
That pandemic was officially declared over back in January 2016, when Liberia was announced to be Ebola-free by the WHO.
The country, rocked by back-to-back civil wars that ended in 2003, was hit the hardest by the fever, with 40 per cent of the deaths having occurred there.
Sierra Leone reported the highest number of Ebola cases, with nearly of all those infected having been residents of the nation.
WHERE DID IT BEGIN?
An analysis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found the outbreak began in Guinea – which neighbours Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A team of international researchers were able to trace the pandemic back to a two-year-old boy in Meliandou – about 400 miles (650km) from the capital, Conakry.
Emile Ouamouno, known more commonly as Patient Zero, may have contracted the deadly virus by playing with bats in a hollow tree, a study suggested.
An infected child is led away by a nurse at the Medecins Sans Frontiers centre in Monrovia, Liberia in 2014
Figures show nearly 29,000 people were infected from Ebola – meaning the virus killed around 40 per cent of those it struck.
Cases and deaths were also reported in Nigeria, Mali and the US – but on a much smaller scale, with 15 fatalities between the three nations.
Health officials in Guinea reported a mysterious bug in the south-eastern regions of the country before the WHO confirmed it was Ebola.
Ebola was first identified by scientists in 1976, but the most recent outbreak dwarfed all other ones recorded in history, figures show.
HOW DID HUMANS CONTRACT THE VIRUS?
Scientists believe Ebola is most often passed to humans by fruit bats, but antelope, porcupines, gorillas and chimpanzees could also be to blame.
It can be transmitted between humans through blood, secretions and other bodily fluids of people – and surfaces – that have been infected.
IS THERE A TREATMENT?
The WHO warns that there is ‘no proven treatment’ for Ebola – but dozens of drugs and jabs are being tested in case of a similarly devastating outbreak.
Hope exists though, after an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, protected nearly 6,000 people. The results were published in The Lancet journal.