A race against the clock has begun to contain an outbreak of Ebola in a remote northern area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said today.

Twenty cases of Ebola have been reported in the DRC’s Bas Uele Province – near the vast country’s border with the Central African Republic – two have been confirmed by laboratory tests and three people have died so far, the agency says.

On 9 May, WHO noticed a cluster of unexplained illnesses and death, all with bleeding symptoms in the same area. WHO, the Congolese Government and the medical aid organization, Alima, immediately deployed a team to the field and lab tests confirmed it was Ebola. Two days later, the DRC Ministry of Health officially declared an outbreak of the virus.

“It’s important to note that Likati Health Zone is one of the most remote parts of the DRC. It is 1400 kilometres from Kinshasa and 350 kilometres from the nearest major town, Kisangani,” said Dr. Peter Salama, the WHO Executive Director for Health and Emergencies Programmes, speaking to the press in Geneva.

He also said there are only 20 kilometres of paved roads in that area and virtually no functional telecommunications. It is also an area that has been subject to insecurity and displacement. “The Lord’s Resistance Army is believed to be active in the area and their displaced populations from the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic,” he noted.

With the help of the UN, the first search teams, led by the DRC’s Ministry of Health, flew into Likati on yesterday. Their immediate priority is to follow the 400 plus contacts of the suspected Ebola cases.

The first six months of the operation are expected to cost $10 million

The focus is on surveillance, getting the best information on the suspected cases, diagnosing people who have come in contact with an infected person, case management, isolating those who are infected to prevent the spread of the disease and more importantly engaging with the community, explained Dr. Salama.

Meanwhile, the first Ebola treatment centre has been established in the Likati General Hospital. Protective gear has been dispatched to health workers and a mobile lab is being constructed and then deployed to the area. Immediate repairs to air strips and telecommunications are also being carried out.

The first six months of the operation are expected to cost $10 million.

Risk assessment ‘high’ at national level; ‘low risk’ globally

WHO has determined overall that the risk assessment for this event is “high” at the national level, medium at the regional level and low at the global level.

An experimental vaccine for Ebola is being tested in Guinea, where the first outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was reported.

The trials there have been “promising” and the vaccines has proven to be efficient and safe so far, Dr. Salama told reporters, while Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, added that she is encouraged by the rapid response to quell the outbreak.

“We have not received an official request from the Government for this vaccine but they have been made aware that this possibility exists both to benefit from this new tool and also to add their support in the testing of this vaccine, she said, reiterating the experimental nature of the vaccine and expressed hope the authorities “will work with us to consider this and make a decision.”

This is the eighth outbreak in the DRC since 1976. The most recent was in 2014, around the time more than 11,000 people died and some 28,000 cases were reported in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.