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Ebola Vaccine Arrives in Democratic Republic of Congo

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People suspected of having the Ebola virus wait at a treatment center in Bikoro, Democratic Republic of Congo.


Photo:

John Bompengo/Associated Press

Health officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo began administering an experimental Ebola vaccine in the northwestern city of Mbandaka on Monday, as the country battles to contain its ninth outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever.

The first people to receive the vaccine were staff at a 20-bed Ebola treatment center set up by medical charity Doctors Without Borders in Mbandaka, said

Jessica Ilungu,

a spokeswoman for Congo’s public-health ministry. People, including relatives, who have come into contact with patients suspected of having contracted the virus would be next, she added.

“Our target is to reach as many contacts as we can before the end of the week,” Ms. Ilunga said.

An initial shipment of 4,000 doses of the experimental vaccine, developed by

Merck

& Co., arrived in the port city of 1.2 million people on the Congo River on Saturday.

It’s the first time the vaccine is being administered since it showed promising results two years ago in Guinea, in the final stages of an Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,300 people across West Africa. If it proves effective in Congo, the vaccine could permanently alter how the world responds to the virus, which is passed on through bodily fluids such as saliva or blood.

At least 30 health workers with experience in administering the vaccine traveled from Guinea to Mbandaka over the weekend. Teams from the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee were also in Mbandaka helping with the vaccination campaign.

The WHO is sending an additional 7,540 doses to Congo, but getting the vaccine to those at highest risk of contracting the virus has been complicated by the need to keep it at below-freezing temperatures in a tropical country with one of the most unreliable electricity grids in the world.

The public-health ministry on Sunday said it had now confirmed four cases on Ebola in Mbandaka, including one dead, plus an extra two suspected cases.

The spread of the disease from the remote region of Bikoro to Mbandaka has raised concerns that it could move downstream to the capital Kinshasa and over to Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo. The WHO on Friday said there was a “very high” risk to public health in Congo, but stopped short of declaring the outbreak a global health emergency, saying it can be contained.

The current outbreak, which is believed to have erupted in April, has so far killed 26 people, according to the United Nations’ health agency.

In Mbandaka, officials and health workers rushed to keep the virus from spreading. At the airport, passengers underwent obligatory temperature screenings, while Congo’s public-health ministry ran radio adverts telling people in Mbandaka to not shake hands, relief officials said. Schools were distributing fliers warning students against close body contact, such as kissing.

“The longer we wait to mobilize a response, the more people will become infected and the more difficult it will become to contain this outbreak,” said

Michelle Gayer,

director of emergency health at International Rescue Committee. “As we all can remember—the lives of millions are at stake”

The WHO said it’s seeking $26 million to fund its response in Congo. Congo’s cabinet over the weekend approved $4 million to facilitate emergency operations, while the U.S. provided $1 million to WHO to help combat the disease.

Write to Nicholas Bariyo at nicholas.bariyo@wsj.com

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