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Outbreak Of Ebola Virus In Conflict-Ridden Congo Worsens


There's a new outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the 10th Ebola outbreak in that country since the virus was discovered there in the 1970s. So far in this epidemic 50 people have died. NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta has been following the story from Nairobi and joins us now.

Eyder, what can you tell us? What's the situation right now?

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: It's still fluid. It's still early days. I mean, what we do know is that it's growing. You know, the latest number, as you mentioned, is that 50 people have died. The Congolese health ministry says that as of last night they have 64 confirmed cases and another 27 probable cases. And there are two things that are worrying them. The first is that the outbreak has moved from one province north up to another province. And the second one is that health workers have been infected. And of course they have contact with a lot of people. And health officials I've spoken to say they just keep seeing new cases every day. And that's just - that's a sign that this outbreak is on an upswing.

MARTIN: So there was an outbreak of Ebola not long ago, just a few months ago in Congo, but it was controlled fairly quickly. So what is different, or is this different?

PERALTA: Yeah, health officials used - you know, what they will tell you is that the context is totally different. The last time around, it was in the West in an area that was fully under government control. And from the beginning, you heard confidence from health officials saying that that outbreak could be controlled. And what they did is they launched a vaccination. And they called it a ring vaccination approach, which is they traced the infected people, and they traced the people who were in contact with them and those who were in contact with the contacts. And more than 3,000 people were vaccinated. And it worked. It brought that outbreak under control quickly.

And this is different because it's in a conflict zone. There's armed groups in that region of eastern Congo. And I spoke to Karin Huster, who's the emergency coordinator at Doctors Without Borders. And what she says is the problem is contact tracing. There are places that they cannot reach in this area of Congo. So how do you vaccinate? How do you create this ring, this protective ring around one of the infections in a place where you can't reach certain places?

MARTIN: So how do you? I mean, what are they doing? What is the strategy?

PERALTA: So they're still vaccinating. You know, they're vaccinating the health workers specifically. And they're also deploying experimental treatments for this. But the problem is we still don't know if it's working. You know, health officials tell me that they think it may not be working for logistical reasons, not because, say, the vaccine is not working. But I think right now what health officials are trying to do is they're just trying to get a handle of what the curve of this outbreak will look like, how they think this outbreak will develop and how they can best contain it.

MARTIN: Is there a risk of this spreading beyond Congo at this point?

PERALTA: There is. And that's a big worry because as it moves north, it's right on the border with Uganda. And right across the border from Uganda there are hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps. And it - the virus can spread very quickly there. And so that's a very worrying part of this.

MARTIN: We'll keep following it. NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "TO SPEAK OF SOLITUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.