Congo tracing contacts of first Ebola case in eastern city

A worker from the World Health Organization (WHO) decontaminates the doorway of a house on a plot where two cases of Ebola were found, in the village of Mabalako, in eastern Congo Monday, June 17, 2019. Health officials in eastern Congo have begun offering vaccinations to all residents in the hotspot of Mabalako whereas previous efforts had only targeted known contacts or those considered to be at high risk. (AP Photo/Al-hadji Kudra Maliro)
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After feeling sick for several days the pastor boarded a bus traveling to eastern Congo’s largest city. Only upon arrival at his destination did anyone suspect he had the highly deadly and infectious Ebola virus.

The preacher managed to pass three different health checkpoints along the way, aimed at stopping those who are sick with Ebola and highly contagious.

Now health authorities along his route are trying to hunt down all those he may have been in contact with after the man became Goma’s first confirmed Ebola case on Sunday.

It’s a crucial task to contain the spread of Ebola in Goma, home to more than 2 million people and the largest city to confirm a case of the disease since the epidemic here began nearly a year ago.

“It’s the door of this region to the rest of the world,” said Dr. Harouna Djingarey, infectious disease program manager for the World Health Organization’s regional office in eastern Congo. “From here you can fly to go to everywhere in the world. If we don’t have the control over the contacts, some high risk contacts may fly, take a plane and go somewhere.”

Health experts have long feared that the disease responsible for killing nearly 1,700 people so far since August would make its way eventually to Goma. The city is an important transit point for the region and beyond, and also a bustling trade hub drawing travelers from throughout the east.

Congo’s health ministry sought to reassure people late Sunday that the situation was under control, though some already were on edge after learning about the sick pastor.

“God help us if Ebola is now in Goma,” said Baudouine Rudahigwa, 30, who immediately feared the case could prompt restrictions against her and fellow residents. “My children are now on alert that they can’t greet or play with others. They are washing their hands all the time.”

The health ministry said that the pastor had preached at seven different churches during his evangelical trip to Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by Ebola in Congo. Last Tuesday the preacher fell ill and was seen at home by a nurse before he began his bus trip to Goma.

Somehow he was able to evade detection during the roadside health checkpoints, when all travelers get off the bus, wash their hands and have their temperature taken.

“During the checks, he did not seem to show signs of the disease. In addition, at each checkpoint he wrote different names and surnames on the lists of travelers, probably indicating his desire to hide his identity and state of health,” the ministry said.

Upon arrival in Goma he sought medical treatment and health workers there immediately suspected he had Ebola, which was later confirmed by a lab test. The man remains in an Ebola treatment center in Goma, while authorities try to reconstruct his route.

Congolese health officials have been preparing for months for the possibility a case would emerge in Goma and as a result more than 3,000 frontline health workers already have been vaccinated. Neighboring Rwanda also has taken measures to stop the disease’s spread across its border as well.

While the epidemic has become the second deadliest in history with nearly 1,700 killed in Congo, its spread to neighboring African countries has been mostly contained. A family who fell while in Congo did cross the border into neighboring Uganda where two of them then died. However, no one they came into contact with fell ill during the 21-day incubation period after the exposure.

The World Health Organization has said that the risk of the outbreak spreading beyond Congo’s borders is low, though efforts to contain it have been compromised by people failing to comply with health authorities. Some who were considered high-risk contacts and urged not to travel have left the area, including a woman who made her way to within 70 kilometers (about 40 miles) of Congo’s border with South Sudan.

Unlike the 2014-2016 epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people, health authorities now have access to an experimental yet highly effective vaccine. The vaccine initially was provided only to those at the highest risk of contracting the disease, though that criteria has now been widened to include others.

The vaccine appears to have benefits for people who already have been exposed, reducing the fatality rate among those who still developed the disease. However, fears and rumors have stopped some from accepting vaccination, including those who falsely believe the vaccine causes people to contract Ebola.q