By Patient Ligodi
MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - Two more people have died from Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo, authorities said on Tuesday, as aid agencies battled to persuade sceptical residents about the severity of an outbreak that has killed 27 since April.
One of the deaths occurred in Mbandaka, according to a daily healthy ministry bulletin. A nurse also died in the village of Bikoro, the town near where the outbreak was first detected in early May, ministry spokeswoman Jessica Ilunga told Reuters.
At the central market in Mbandaka, where vendors in colorful fabrics hawk smoked monkeys, some residents said they were unmoved by warnings not to consume bush meat since a case of Ebola was discovered in the city of 1.5 million last week.
"Despite your Ebola stories, we buy and eat monkey meat," said one woman named Carine, a mother of eight children. "We have eaten that since forever. That is not going to change today. Ebola, that's in Bikoro."
Experts who have studied the Ebola virus since its discovery in 1976 along the Ebola river in Congo, then Zaire, say its suspected origin is forest bats. Links have also been made to the carcasses of freshly slaughtered animals eaten as bush meat.
Seven new confirmed cases were also registered in Bikoro, the ministry said, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 28.
CROWDED TRADING HUB
More than 11,300 people died in an Ebola outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016, during which health authorities were widely criticized for their slow response.
This time, health officials are particularly concerned by the disease's presence in Mbandaka, a crowded trading hub on the Congo River with road, water and air links to Congo's capital, Kinshasa.
Four cases have been confirmed in the city's Wangata neighborhood and two more are suspected.
The urban setting sets this outbreak apart from the eight others that have struck Congo since the 1970s in mostly containable, rural settings.
The government and international partners have deployed significant resources to the northwestern Equateur province. Health officials administered an experimental vaccine on Monday to 33 medical workers and Mbandaka residents, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.
The WHO said vaccine manufacturer Merck has provided it with 8,640 doses of the vaccine and an additional 8,000 doses are expected to be available in the coming days.
The vaccine takes seven to 10 days to generate a strong enough immune response to ensure a person is fully protected. Those vaccinated are instructed to follow the same strict infection control and hygiene practices as anyone who is not vaccinated.
The U.S. government has added $7 million to the initial $1 million it previously committed to fighting the virus in Congo, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said on Tuesday.
The World Bank Group’s Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility on Tuesday also approved a $12 million grant towards efforts to contain the virus.
"The risk of spreading within the country and to neighboring nations remains real," said Dr. Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. "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 has deployed 25 epidemiologists to Mbandaka and Bikoro to support the government's surveillance work, its director John Nkengasong told a news briefing in Geneva.
It hopes to move a mobile laboratory from Sierra Leone to Congo that could, among other things, help detect the presence of the virus in human samples and conduct genetic sequencing to see if it is mutating.
(Reporting By Patient Ligodi; additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba in Goma and Tom Miles in Geneva and Kate Kelland in London; writing by Edward McAllister and Aaron Ross; editing by William Maclean, Larry King)