This Monday, Ebola vaccination began in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), hit by a massive Ebola outbreak. The vaccines will reach 600 people in the first instance. To this end, 4,000 doses are being transported from Kinshasa to the city of Mbandaka and the town of Bikoro in the north-west of the country.
Although clinical trials in Guinea and Sierra Leone were already conducted with positive results in 2015, this will be the first live test for the first Ebola virus vaccine, a campaign with enormous logistical challenges.
The Ebola outbreak in Congo was declared on May 8th and has reached 46 cases, 21 of which have died, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) considered it a “very high risk” but not an international emergency, yet.
Ebola vaccine supply faces several challenges
The first challenge is to maintain the vaccine cool, as doses must be kept at -80 degrees Celsius in a tropical country where electricity is not always guaranteed, especially in the center of the country.
Another challenge for this Ebola vaccination campaign is prior sensitization because only health personnel, confirmed case contacts, and contact’s contacts will be immunized. This discriminatory character requires a correct communication campaign to avoid problems among the population.
The Ebola vaccine, specific to the Zaire strain and not yet approved, was developed by the National Microbiology Laboratory of Canada, tested in Guinea and Sierra Leone during the 2014-2016, and then purchased by the rights-holding pharmaceutical company Merck.
A further 3,600 doses are expected to arrive in Congo in the coming days.
The biggest challenge in this Ebola vaccination campaign is the Congolese health system’s fragility
One of the concerns is the fragility of the Congolese health system itself, which, despite the fact that Ebola was discovered 42 years ago in Congo and the country suffered 9 Ebola epidemics, has been unable to early-detect this new Ebola outbreak.
Researchers suspect that the virus may have been spreading undetected for several months.
Thus, the local authorities were late in implementing the usual measures, such as hand washing, physical contact restrictions, the use of gloves, masks and special clothing for medical personnel, and a public awareness campaign that includes a recommendation not to consume the meat of wild animals and that all burials should be controlled by specialized personnel.