Goma, DR Congo | AFP | An epidemic of Ebola in eastern DR Congo sharply widened on Wednesday, the eve of the first anniversary of the outbreak, with the announcement of a death in a major city and the quarantining of 15 people in a province that had previously escaped the disease.
A total of 1,803 lives have been lost in the second worst outbreak of Ebola on record, according to figures released Wednesday.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s pointman on the crisis, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, said a second person had died of Ebola in Goma, a densely-populated city on the border with Rwanda that has transport links to many parts of East Africa.
“A patient who was confirmed with Ebola in Goma has died. Every measure has been taken to block the chain of transmission,” Muyembe told AFP.
Goma is the capital of North Kivu province, which has borne the brunt of the outbreak that began on August 1 2018.
It is a lakeside city of more than two million people that has an airport with flights to the capital Kinshasa, Uganda’s Entebbe and Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, as well as a port that links to Bukavu and South Kivu province.
Health experts fear outbreaks in major cities, where population density and high mobility make it far harder to isolate patients and trace contacts compared to the countryside.
Aruna Abedi, the chief Ebola coordinator in North Kivu, said the second fatality had arrived at a treatment centre “11 days after falling ill”.
“His was really a hopeless case, because the illness was already at an advanced stage and he died overnight Tuesday.”
Abedi urged the public to respond swiftly to symptoms of Ebola and “not hide suspect cases”.
“The treatment centre is not a dying room — you have to bring the patient in early,” he said.
– Public health emergency –
The first death in Goma, reported on July 16, sparked a wave of concern.
In that case, a man described as an evangelical preacher had travelled from Goma to Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by the outbreak.
While there, he preached at seven churches and regularly touched worshippers, including the sick, before returning to Goma.
The day after his announced death, the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) declared the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” — a move designed to step up the global response.
The WHO has since said a shortage in funding was finally being filled after several countries renewed pledges of financial aid.
The World Bank also announced this month it would deploy a further $300 million (269 million euros) in addition to $100 million already provided.
Many people in Goma voiced frustration and despair.
“I’m now afraid that this disease will reach us. We used to hear about it from a distance and now the virus is in our town,” said 27-year-old worker Anuarite Sifa.
“Why hasn’t the Butembo-Goma road been sealed off?” she asked.
Joseph Bakisula, 32, said: “This new death proves that Ebola was already in Goma. May God help us, otherwise it will be catastrophic for us and other towns” connected to Goma.
“The authorities have to take other steps to protect us.”
Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Kivu province, which had previously skirted the epidemic, a senior official in Birava said 15 people had been quarantined.
They comprised “a mum and her six children who came from Goma as well as other members of her family who had come to meet them,” said the official, Christian Birhinjira.
Birava is located about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu.
– ‘Risks are high –
Among the Democratic Republic of Congo’s neighbours, fears have mounted that the highly contagious virus will cross porous borders.
“Economic and human exchanges are very intense,” the Central African Republic’s health minister, Pierre Somse, warned last week.
“Our livestock farmers sell their cattle in DR Congo. Rebel groups and poachers go back and forth across the border. The risks are high.”
Health Minister Oly Ilunga quit in protest on July 22 after President Felix Tshisekedi took personal control of the Ebola campaign.
One key challenge will be protecting doctors and nurses trying to contain the virus.
Attacks on health workers have had a devastating effect, with seven murdered and more than 50 seriously hurt, according to an unofficial tally.
The epidemic in DR Congo is the deadliest on record after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014-2016.