At least 17 people have died from Ebola in the northwest region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) . Health officials confirmed the outbreak in a statement on Tuesday 8 May.
This is the ninth outbreak of Ebola within the region, since the discovery of the disease in the 1970s.The latest outbreak comes less than a year after the last one in 2017, which resulted in the death of eight people.
"Our country is facing another epidemic of the Ebola virus, which constitutes an international public health emergency", a ministry statement said.
The disease is believed to be spread over large areas by bats, which can host the virus without dying. The bats spread the disease to other animals through the sharing of trees, which often results in monkeys contracting the virus.The virus is then spread to humans through the consumption of contaminated bushmeat.
Before confirmation of the latest outbreak, 21 patients presented with virus-like symptoms around the village of Ikoko Impenge, near the town of Bikuro. Seventeen of these patients later died of the haemorrhagic fever.
Medical teams were dispatched to the area on Saturday and took five samples for testing. Two of these samples tested positive for the virus. The medical teams are supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Medecins Sans Frontieres.
According to the health department, since the notification of the cases on 3 May, there have been no further deaths reported from healthcare facilities or healthcare personnel.
Following the last Ebola flare-up in the Congo, authorities approved the use of an experimental vaccine. This was later halted due to logistical problems and the relatively minor nature of the outbreak.The worst Ebola outbreak in history ended just two years ago and left more than 11,300 people dead in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Despite regular outbreaks of the disease every few years, death tolls in the DRC have been significantly lower. "Our top priority is to get to Bikoro to work alongside the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and partners to reduce the loss of life and suffering related to this new Ebola virus disease outbreak", said Dr Peter Salama, WHO Deputy Director-General, Emergency Preparedness and Response. "Working with partners and responding early and in a coordinated way will be vital to containing this deadly disease," he said.
Health experts credit the containment of the disease and relatively low numbers of deaths to an awareness of Ebola among the population and medical personnel, along with healthcare professionals' experience in treating the disease.
The Congo's vast, remote geography gives the country another advantage in that outbreaks are often localised and are relatively easy to isolate.
One concern over the latest outbreak is that Ikoko Impenge and Bikoro are not far from the banks of the Congo River, which is an essential gateway for transport and commerce.
Further downstream from the outbreak, the river flows past the DRC's capital Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital of the neighbouring Congo Republic. The two cities have a combined population of over 12 million people.