DR Congo urges calm after Ebola case in key city

KINSHASA (AFP) – The authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) have appealed for calm after the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in the main eastern city of Goma.

The city is the biggest where a case of the killer disease has been confirmed since an outbreak started in eastern DR Congo last August, but the government said chances of it spreading were “low”.

The patient is a pastor who had been preaching at a church in another town, Butembo, where he would have touched worshippers “including the sick”, the country’s Health Ministry said last Sunday.

His symptoms first appeared last Tuesday.

The preacher left for Goma from Butembo, one of the towns most affected by the outbreak, by bus last Friday, and arrived two days later where “the results of the laboratory test confirmed that he was positive for Ebola”, the ministry said.

“Given that the patient was quickly identified, as well as all the passengers on the bus from Butembo, the risk of the disease spreading in the city of Goma is low,” it added.

The other passengers, 18 in all, and the driver were vaccinated against Ebola yesterday, said the ministry, and urged the population of one of Africa’s largest countries to “keep calm”.

Last weekend, however, two Ebola awareness campaigners were murdered in their homes in the North Kivu province, where locals view foreign healthcare providers with deep suspicion.

The pair were killed after months of threats, the Health Ministry said.

The United Nations (UN) is due to convene a “high-level event” in Geneva this week to discuss response and preparedness for the Ebola outbreak.

It will be attended by government ministers from the DR Congo and Britain, senior officials of the World Bank, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and other UN agencies.

Health workers in Goma, which has a population of about one million and is the capital of North Kivu province, were vaccinated as early as December last year when the outbreak first hit Butembo some 300 kilometres north.

The two towns are separated by poor roads under the threat of armed groups.

The latest Ebola outbreak in eastern DR Congo has killed 1,655 people, according to a Health Ministry bulletin last Saturday.

Nearly 700 were cured, and 160,239 people have been vaccinated against the highly contagious haemorrhagic fever, it added.

The UN’s WHO had been hopeful it would be able to contain the latest epidemic, thanks in part to a new vaccine.

Last month, the WHO said the outbreak did not qualify as an international threat, even after an infected family travelled to neighbouring Uganda.

Efforts to tackle the crisis have been hampered by militia attacks on treatment centres, in which some staff have been killed, and hostility to medical teams from outside – fuelled by local politicians actively trying to turn people against them.