Two more people have died from the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to Reuters, as health agencies face difficulties convincing residents about the severity of the recent outbreak that has killed 27.
One of the deaths occurred in Mbandaka, a city with a population of about 1.5 million people, which is located near the Congo River with several roads, water and air links to the country’s capital of Kinshasa.
A nurse also died in the village of Bikoro, the town near where the outbreak was first detected in early May, a Congolese ministry spokeswoman, Jessica Ilunga, said.
The government has issued warnings against the consumption of bushmeat since the city’s first Ebola infection was discovered last week. However, vendors continue to sell smoked monkey to defiant patrons in Mbandaka's main outdoor market.
"Despite your Ebola stories, we buy and eat monkey meat," Carine, a mother of eight children told Reuters. "We have eaten that since forever. That is not going to change today. Ebola, that's in Bikoro."
Scientists say the Ebola virus, first identified in 1976 along the Ebola river in Congo (then Zaire), was first linked to forest bats and also carcasses of freshly slaughtered forest animals which were consumed by people.
Religion and superstition are also keeping some people in the DRC from seeking Western medical help, and instead are heading to local religious leaders for prayer. "Some sick people believe that the Ebola epidemic comes from sorcery — they refuse to be treated and prefer to pray," Julie Lobali, a nurse, explained to AFP.
More than 11,300 people died as a result of the region’s last Ebola epidemic, that spanned Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016. International health authorities were widely criticized for their slow response to the plague and subsequent high death rates.
Health officials are trying to prevent a repeat of that outbreak by administering a vaccine, still in beta-phase, to residents and medical workers. So far the vaccine has been given to 33 medical workers and Mbandaka residents, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said. The WHO said the vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, has provided the organization with 8,640 doses of the test vaccine, so far. An additional 8,000 doses are expected to be available in the coming days.
"In the next five days 100 people must be vaccinated, including 70 health professionals," DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga said. "The priority of the government is to ensure that all these brave health professionals can do their job safely."
Though the test vaccine takes seven to 10 days, in the human body, to be effective against the virus, reports say it was effective towards the end of the region’s last outbreak.
On Tuesday, the World Bank Group’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility also approved a US$12 million grant towards efforts to contain the virus.
"The risk of spreading within the country and to neighboring nations remains real," Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said. "One of the lessons we learned in our response to other deadly Ebola outbreaks is that complacency can kill."
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ACDCP) has sent 25 epidemiologists to Mbandaka and Bikoro to support the government's surveillance work. The agency is also sending anthropologists to support the vaccine effort.