FILE - In this file photo taken Thursday, May 31, 2018, Congolese health officials prepare to disinfect people and buildings at the general referral hospital in Mbandaka, Congo. Congo's Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga on Tuesday July 24, 2018, declared the end of the country's latest deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus, after a 42-day observation period with no new confirmed cases recorded. (AP Photo/John Bompengo, FILE)

Congo confirms end of latest deadly Ebola outbreak

July 24, 2018 - 1:24 pm

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Congo's latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus is over, the health ministry announced Tuesday, after a speedy response to limit its spread in remote rural areas and a city of more than 1 million people.

Health experts said the vaccinations of more than 3,300 people were a major factor in containing the outbreak, Congo's ninth since the hemorrhagic fever was first identified in 1976.

There were 54 Ebola cases, including 33 deaths, in the outbreak that was declared in early May in northwest Equateur province, the health ministry said.

"Although the scale of the crisis we were facing was unprecedented, the speed and effectiveness of the response put in place by the government and its partners were also exceptional," Health Minister Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga said.

The outbreak posed a serious challenge when it spread to the city of Mbandaka and its more than 1 million people. The other initial cases were in hard-to-reach rural areas without basic infrastructure such as electricity, making the vaccination efforts more difficult.

"From the start, we had prepared for the worst of scenarios," the health minister said. "And our fears were quickly confirmed" with the spread to Mbandaka early on in the outbreak.

The city sits on the Congo River upstream from the capital, Kinshasa. There were concerns the virus would spread not only within the country but to neighboring nations including Central African Republic.

The outbreak was declared over after a 42-day observation period, equaling two 21-day incubation periods, with no new confirmed cases recorded.

"It's a great relief for us," said Dominique Ekila, a 44-year-old resident of Kinshasa. "Since May, I had stopped traveling to Equateur province to sell fish ... With this announcement I will soon plan my next trip."

Esther Mavinga, who sells vegetables in Kinshasa, said she was grateful the outbreak was over.

"We were very worried that this epidemic would come to Kinshasa. The God we prayed to heard our prayers and spared us," she said.

There is no specific treatment for Ebola, which is spread via contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain and at times internal and external bleeding. The virus can be fatal in up to 90 percent of cases, depending on the strain.

The World Health Organization, which played a major role in the outbreak response and delivery of the vaccines, congratulated Congo.

WHO and other international partners will remain on the ground for at least another 90 days, according to Dr. Ibrahima Soce Fall, the regional emergencies director for the agency in Africa.

Fall called the response vastly improved from the one to the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people from 2014 to 2016. WHO, criticized for its slow response, went through a "profound reform" after that, he said.

The same day the latest outbreak was declared, WHO was able to release $2 million allocated for the initial response and international teams were able to deploy quickly in a coordinated effort, he said.

But Dr. Stacey Mearns, senior health coordinator of the International Rescue Committee's emergency response team, warned against too much celebration.

"It's always good to see the end of an outbreak, but it's certainly not the end of Ebola in Congo. Ebola is endemic here," she said.

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Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.

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