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WHO Official Discusses Task Of Containing Ebola

Originally published on May 17, 2018 6:31 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Ebola virus has spread to a city along the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That is scary because lots of people travel through a port city, and the Ebola virus, of course, is highly contagious, as you will remember from the massive outbreak in West Africa a few years ago. That outbreak killed more than 11,000 people. Well, the World Health Organization is working with local authorities in Congo to try to stop the spread of the disease. And we have reached Dr. Peter Salama. He is the WHO's deputy director general for emergencies. We've caught him on the line in Geneva, Switzerland. Hey, Dr. Salama.

PETER SALAMA: Hello.

KELLY: Can you describe the city on the Congo River where the outbreak appears to have spread - where it's now centered?

SALAMA: Yes. To the provincial capital, which is called Mbandaka...

KELLY: OK.

SALAMA: ...With a population of somewhere between 1 and 2 million people.

KELLY: One and 2 million people. So it's a big - that's a big city. Yeah.

SALAMA: So there - the big news of this week was really confirmation late last night that - we had the first lab-confirmed case of Ebola because now we can really say we have urban Ebola. When you have cases in urban areas, the number of contacts can amplify so much more quickly. And therefore, the increase in the transmission can be much more exponential rather than linear.

KELLY: Any reports of cases emerging outside of the DRC, or does it appear to be contained to that country at this stage?

SALAMA: At the moment, we only have reports of cases within the DRC. We are concerned, though, that Ebola has spread down the river because, in a sense, the river is in - the northwest part of DRC are the highways. There are very few paved roads, so people use them for transportation. So the virus could spread down the rivers, and that could mean it gets to the - into land of Kinshasa where we have 10 million people in a really sprawling urban center.

KELLY: Which would be the worst case scenario, I assume, that it would spread to Kinshasa.

SALAMA: And that's the way it could also link into neighboring countries, such as Congo Brazzaville and Central African Republic.

KELLY: There must be major lessons learned from the situation in 2014 with the last major outbreak. What have you learned that's informing the way that you're preparing this time around?

SALAMA: Firstly, we were too slow last time around - the international community, including WHO. So we've been pretty fast off the ground this time. So the outbreak was only confirmed on May the 8. We've sent in a mobile lab. We've ensured that personal protective equipment is on the ground and agreed on the critical priorities in a response plan. So we're really establishing a no-regrets policy. We want to make sure that we don't let this one get out of control.

KELLY: How confident are you, Dr. Salama, that this outbreak can be contained - that we are not looking at something on the scale of the outbreak of 2014?

SALAMA: Well, you know, it's very hard to say at this point. But what we can say is the international response has been quick thus far. We have a vaccine which is now in the DRC and almost ready to be deployed. But really important to remember, the vaccine is not a silver bullet. The vaccine really rests on the foundation of having those basic public health measures of good surveillance, good contact tracing, good laboratories and really good engagement with the communities so they understand what we're doing and what we're recommending in terms of safe burials, avoiding traditional healers and really using the communities as an asset to stop this outbreak.

KELLY: Dr. Salama, thank you.

SALAMA: Thank you so much.

KELLY: That is Dr. Peter Salama of the World Health Organization. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.