EBOLA has appeared in Goma, the largest city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first death from the virus, that of a pastor, was confirmed this week.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, after it reached a critical point this week.
Esperant Mulumba, Christian Aid’s acting country manager for the DRC, said on Wednesday: “We are hoping the WHO’s announcement will bring much-needed attention from the international community to the grave situation in the DRC.
“The deadly outbreak has exacerbated the problems of instability, armed violence, widespread displacement and food shortages within the region.”
Goma has more than one million residents and is a key transport hub, so the virus’s appearance has raised fears of an epidemic. DRC officials said that the victim was a pastor who had visited Butembo, one of the centres of the outbreak, last week.
The pastor has not been named, but it has been reported that he preached in seven churches in Butembo. He returned to Goma by bus, according to the DRC health ministry. When symptoms developed, he was sent back to Butembo, where the disease is being treated, but he died in transit.
The World Health Organisation said on Monday that health officials had identified 60 people who had come into contact with the pastor. Half of them have now been vaccinated.
Mr Mulumba, who is in Goma, said on Monday that there was a “sense of shock” that Ebola had reached the city.
“While we have long expected that Ebola would reach Goma, there is still a sense of shock that a case has finally been confirmed in the city. We are hopeful that the speedy discovery of this first case means a full outbreak in Goma can be prevented.
“However, given the amount of people living closely together, and widespread poor living conditions, there remains a real risk that virus could spread very rapidly unless the utmost care is taken to test and quarantine all those who could have come into contact with this patient or anyone displaying Ebola symptoms.”
Goma is more than 220 miles south of where the latest outbreak was first detected a year ago. About 2500 people have been infected so far, and there have been 1700 recorded deaths.
The city is close to the border with Rwanda, and there is a significant risk that the crisis could become international.
Last week, the Archbishop of Congo, the Most Revd Masimango Katanda, explained that one of the problems with containing Ebola was that the crisis is in an active conflict zone (News, 12 July).
World Vision’s DRC director, Anne-Marie Connor, said that she was comforted by the fact that the victim, and those who had travelled with him, had been quickly identified. It was a reminder, however, “that all it takes is one case for Ebola to leap into a major city or across a border”.
The charity’s DRC Ebola-response director, Moussa Sangara, said: “Many people have been worried about Ebola reaching Goma because it’s a major trade city, home to 1.2 million people and many residents move across the border to Rwanda regularly. That’s why we expanded our prevention work here recently. We can’t afford for residents to not be prepared.
“This isn’t like past Ebola outbreaks, which occurred in relatively stable climates. Halting Ebola in an active conflict zone requires a unique mix of skills.
“Health workers suddenly need to be peace builders or negotiators in the midst of conflict.”
World Vision’s staff in Uganda and South Sudan were now preparing for Ebola outbreaks in their countries, she reported.
The Department for International Development announced on Monday that the UK would give £50 million more in aid to the DRC, to help to tackle the outbreak.