The Ebola outbreak that has killed 75 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo since it began four weeks ago has the ‘potential to be the worst ever seen’.
An agency that responds to humanitarian crises fears it will trump the pandemic of 2014, which killed 11,000 and decimated West Africa.
The International Rescue Committee said: ‘Without a swift, concerted and efficient response, this outbreak has the potential to be the worst ever seen.’
Aid workers are battling round-the-clock to contain the outbreak, feared to have struck 111 people in the east of the DRC, on the border with Uganda.
Experimental drugs have been shipped into the area to control the virus, considered to be one of the most lethal pathogens in existence.
Virologists have repeatedly warned the situation is ‘hard to control’ because cases are in a conflict zone, roamed by armed militias.
And yesterday, Dr Tedros Adhanom, chief of the World Health Organization ramped up the warnings over its potential rapid spread.
Several areas close to the outbreak’s epicentre in the town of Mangina are off-limits to health workers for security reasons.
Dr Tedros Adhanom told news agency Reuters: ‘If one case is hidden in the red zone or an inaccessible area, it’s dangerous. It can just spark a fire, just one case.’
He admitted there has been a steady decline in new cases but warned it was too soon to say the outbreak is stabilising.
No new cases have been diagnosed since Sunday and two infected patients have recovered after being given an experimental drug.
Health authorities are trialling five anti-Ebola medications to try and stop the highly contagious virus in its tracks.
Ebola virus disease, caused by the virus with its namesake, kills around 50 per cent of people it strikes – but there is no proven treatment available.
WHO figures released earlier this week show there has been 111 suspected cases of Ebola in the DRC region, of which 83 have been confirmed.
Only 47 deaths have been confirmed, so far, but the remaining fatalities are being investigated in a laboratory, to see if Ebola was to blame.
A total of 15 healthcare workers have been struck down by the outbreak in North Kivu province, of which 14 are confirmed and one has died.
Most of the confirmed cases have been recorded in Mabalako, 18 miles (30km) west of the trading hub of Beni, where 230,000 people live.
But it has since spread to Oicha, an area almost entirely surrounded by militants.
Michelle Gayer, of the IRC, said: ‘With more than fifty armed groups operating in North Kivu, many areas are inaccessible to aid groups due to insecurity.
‘Beni itself was the deadliest territory of the Kivus this month with 33 violent deaths of civilians recorded.
‘If someone contracts Ebola in one of these areas, there is almost no way of knowing and, therefore, no way of cutting the chain of transmission.
‘The news of two confirmed cases in Oicha is extremely distressing, because the area is almost entirely surrounded by armed militants.’
In a desperate attempt to stem cases, Dr Adhanom last week called for an end to the brutal fighting in the DRC.
The unsafe burial of a 65-year-old Ebola sufferer triggered the latest outbreak in the DRC, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
After she was buried members of her family began to display symptoms of the virus ‘and seven of them died’.
Genetic analysis has confirmed the virus strain in this latest outbreak is the Zaire strain, the same as the one earlier this summer.
However, Peter Salama, WHO deputy director for emergency preparedness and response, earlier this month revealed it is genetically different.
Vaccinations began two weeks ago, following the success of the jabs in Equateur province.
Some 33 people were feared to have died in the earlier outbreak this summer, which started in the poorly-connected region of Ikoko-Impenge and Bikoro.
It travelled 80 miles (130km) north to Mbandaka, a port city on the river Congo – an essential waterway – with around 1.2 million inhabitants.
There was a concern it would spread to Kinshasa – 364 miles (586km) south, which has an international airport and 12 million people residents.
Dr Derek Gatherer, a virologist from Lancaster University, warned the outbreak earlier this summer was ‘reminiscent’ of the 2014 Ebola pandemic.
All neighbouring countries were alerted about the outbreak of Ebola before it was declared over amid fears it could spread easily.
Officials hailed the use of an experimental vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, in stemming the Ebola outbreak in north west DRC in July.
Barthe Ndjoloko, who oversees the health ministry’s Ebola response, said officials are working to identify those who may be infected.
He revealed the vaccination campaign would focus on healthcare workers and those who have come into contact with confirmed cases.
The 2014 international response to the Ebola pandemic drew criticism for moving too slowly and prompted an apology from the WHO.
But international aid teams have moved much quicker in response this time – with vaccination campaigns already underway in several regions.
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.
HOW MANY PEOPLE WERE STRUCK DOWN?
WHICH COUNTRIES WERE STRUCK DOWN BY EBOLA DURING THE 2014-16 PANDEMIC? (CDC figures) COUNTRY CASES DEATHS DEATH RATE (%) GUINEA 3,814 2,544 66.7% SIERRA LEONE 14,124 3,956 28.0% LIBERIA 10,678 4,810 45.0% NIGERIA 20 8 40.0% SENEGAL 1 0 N/A SPAIN 1 0 N/A US 4 1 25.0% MALI 8 6 75.0% UK 1 0 N/A ITALY 1 0 N/A
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.