Militia violence in Democratic Republic of Congo prevented aid workers from reaching potential cases in an outbreak of Ebola that has so far killed 44 people, the World Health Organisation said.
At least 1,500 people have been potentially exposed to the deadly virus in North Kivu province but violence means officials cannot be sure if they have identified all the chains by which it is spreading in the east of the vast country.
“We don’t know if we are identifying all transmission chains. We expect to see more cases as a result of earlier infections and these infections developing into illness,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a news briefing in Geneva.
“The worst-case scenario is we have security blind spots where the epidemic could take hold that we don’t know about,” he said.
The WHO, using figures compiled with Congo’s Health Ministry, said confirmed and probable cases numbered 78, including 44 deaths. About 1,500 people have been identified as contacts of people infected with the disease, which causes fever, vomiting and diarrhoea.
The outbreak is spreading across the farmlands of eastern Congo. Its epicentre is Mangina in North Kivu province and it has reached neighbouring Ituri province.
Congo experienced 10 Ebola outbreaks since the virus was discovered on the Ebola River in 1976 and it has r killed some 900 people altogether.
An epidemic between 2013 and 2016 killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa.
The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said an unusually high proportion of people affected in this outbreak are children.
Two children have died from the disease and centres in Beni and Mangina are treating six children infected or suspected to be.
UNICEF also identified 53 orphaned children who lost parents to Ebola.
“The impact of the disease on children is not limited to those infected or suspected,” said Gianfranco Rotigliano, the UNICEF representative in Congo.
“Many children are faced with illness or death of their parents and loved ones, while some children lost large parts of their families and become isolated. These children urgently need our support”.
The WHO said more than 500 people including health workers were vaccinated against the disease. It deployed more than 100 experts to Mangina and Beni to oversee tracing, vaccination and safe burials.
There were “red zones” near Mangina which aid workers could not enter for security reasons, Jasarevic said.