A woman and her child were the first two cases confirmed with Ebola in Congo’s South Kivu region this week, opening a new front in the fight against the outbreak.
Health officials said on Friday that the latest cases were more than 700 km (430 miles) south of where the outbreak was first detected.
Ebola has killed at least 1,900 people in Democratic Republic of Congo over the past year. This is the second biggest toll ever, and militia violence combined with local resistance have made the outbreak harder to contain.
The 24-year-old woman had been identified as a high-risk contact of another Ebola case in Beni, more than 700 km north, last month, according to a government statement issued on Friday.
She traveled by bus, boat and road with her two children to Mwenga, in South Kivu, where she died on Tuesday night, according to a slide from a presentation by health officials.
The woman had been vaccinated, the slide said. The Ebola response team, headed by the Congolese government, identified 120 contacts and vaccinated 20 on Thursday, the slide showed.
The latest cases show the difficulty of containing the latest Ebola outbreak, which has continued to spread in eastern Congo despite the deployment of a highly effective vaccine.
Last month, it reached the region’s largest city of Goma, home to nearly two million people on the Rwandan border.
Ebola treatment centers have repeatedly been attacked by armed militiamen and disgruntled locals, hampering efforts to contain the epidemic in the conflict-ravaged east.
Ebola’s spread to a new part of Democratic Republic of Congo is a disturbing sign that health workers are failing to keep track of high-risk people on the move, aid agencies said on Friday.
“This highlights a disturbing trend of cases originating from current hotspots which then leave the area,” said Whitney Elmer, Country Director for charity Mercy Corps.
“Despite the control measures in place along the corridor, they are not detected,”
“It is very concerning, especially given the efforts over the last few months to scale up the response.”
Ebola causes vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea and spreads via contact with bodily fluids of the infected.
A breakthrough this week showed there may be a cure as two experimental drugs were found to boost survival rates.
But stopping the outbreak still depends on tracing and monitoring people who might have been exposed to the disease to prevent is spreading further, health workers said.
“This is very indicative of one of the challenges we face, which is that people are so mobile,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO deployed a rapid-response team and plans to vaccinate everyone in the village where the woman died, Harris said.
The response has been hampered by militia violence causing people to flee and by mistrust of health workers, which has driven patients to hide symptoms and avoid detection.
South Kivu presents similar challenges to North Kivu in terms of insecurity and conflict, said Jamie LeSueur, Ebola Response Operations Manager for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“This is a stark reminder that we are still far from containing and ending Ebola in DR Congo,” LeSueur said.