By SALEH MWANAMILONGO
KINSHASA, Congo (AP) - Congo will begin administering an experimental Ebola vaccine Monday in Mbandaka, the northwestern city of 1.2 million where the deadly disease has infected some residents, Congo's health minister announced.
"The vaccination campaign begins tomorrow, Monday, in Mbandaka, capital of the province. It will target, first, the health staff, the contacts of the sick and the contacts of the contacts," Minister of Health Oly Ilunga told The Associated Press Sunday.
The death toll of the current Ebola outbreak has risen to 26.
Initially, the campaign will target 600 people, mainly medical staff, contacts of suspected cases, and those who have been in contact with the contacts, said Ilunga. Officials are working urgently to prevent the disease from spreading beyond Mbandaka, which lies on the Congo River, a busy traffic corridor, and is an hour's flight from the capital.
More than 4,000 doses are already in Congo and more are on the way, according to officials. The vaccine is still in the test stages, but it was effective in the West Africa outbreak a few years ago.
A major challenge will be keeping the vaccines cold in this vast, impoverished, tropical country where infrastructure is poor.
Four new cases have been confirmed as Ebola, said the health ministry in a statement released early Sunday. A total of 46 cases of hemorrhagic fever have been reported, including 21 confirmed cases of Ebola, 21 probable and four suspected.
Congo President Joseph Kabila and his Cabinet agreed Saturday to increase funds for the Ebola emergency to more than $4 million. The Cabinet also endorsed the decision to provide free health care in the affected areas and to provide special care to all Ebola victims and their relatives.
The spread of Ebola from a rural area to Mbandaka has raised alarm as Ebola can spread more quickly in urban centers. The fever can cause severe internal bleeding that is often fatal.
The risk of Ebola spreading within Congo is "very high" and the disease could also move into nine neighboring countries, the World Health Organization has warned. The WHO, however, stopped short of declaring the outbreak a global health emergency. WHO said there should not be restrictions to international travel or trade.
While Congo has contained several Ebola outbreaks in the past, all of them were based in remote rural areas. The virus has twice made it to Kinshasa, Congo's capital of 10 million people, but was effectively contained.
The outbreak was declared more than a week ago in Congo's remote northwest and its spread has some Congolese worried.
"Even if it's not happening here yet, I have to reduce contact with people. May God protect us in any case," Grace Ekofo, a 23-year-old student in Kinshasa, told AP.
Schools in Mbandaka are implementing preventive measures by instructing students not to greet each other by shaking hands or kissing, said teacher Jean Mopono, 53.
"We pray that this epidemic does not take place here," Mopono said.
The WHO appears to be moving swiftly to contain this latest epidemic, experts said. The health organization was accused of bungling its response to the earlier West Africa outbreak -the biggest Ebola outbreak in history which resulted in more than 11,000 deaths.
There is "strong reason to believe this situation can be brought under control," said Robert Steffen, who chaired the WHO expert meeting last week. But without a vigorous response, "the situation is likely to deteriorate significantly," he said.
This is Congo's ninth Ebola outbreak since 1976, when the disease was first identified. The virus is initially transmitted to people from wild animals, including bats and monkeys. It is spread via contact with bodily fluids of those infected.
There is no specific treatment for Ebola. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain and at times internal and external bleeding. The virus can be fatal in up to 90 percent of cases, depending on the strain.
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