JOHANNESBURG - Health officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo began a vaccination drive to control an Ebola outbreak that has infected more than 50 people and killed as many as 25. But as aid workers and health experts say this vaccination drive is a careful, methodical process in which trust is a key element.
Health officials in the rural corner of northwest Congo that has been hit with Ebola say workers are seeking out those at the highest risk to vaccinate, a move that tries to cut off the virus at the pass while also making good use of the limited supply of the vaccine.
At the moment, officials have only 7,500 doses of the experimental vaccine.
World Health Organization spokesman Tarik Jasarevic explained the campaign, which began this week in the rural communities of Bikoro and Iboko.
"This is not a general mass immunization, as is being done for some other diseases," he explained. "We are looking into people who have been in contact with those who tested positive for Ebola, and their contacts. So we make a ring around the person who contracted the virus."
That is careful work and involves much more than medicine, said UNICEF field worker Jean Claude Nzengu.
He said workers go to the households to talk about the vaccination that stops transmission, the advantage of the vaccination, what the residents need to do, how to behave, and finally take them to be vaccinated.
Congolese health authorities first reported the Ebola outbreak in early May. This is not Congo's first encounter with the often-deadly virus, which causes an acute, serious illness. The WHO puts the survival rate around 50 percent.
But as health officials learned when Ebola rampaged through West Africa, killing more than 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016, earning public trust is a major element of the fight.
Last week, three infected patients escaped from isolation units in the city of Mbandaka. Two were found dead a day later and the other was found alive and returned to quarantine.
Jasarevic said it takes cooperation from the entire community for an Ebola outbreak to be defeated.
"It is only human that people who have their relatives in isolation units want them to be at home, want them to be with their family at home in what could be the last moments of their lives," he said. "But we need really to explain to everyone how disease is being transmitted. If a person who is sick is in an isolation unit, it not only increases the chance of survival for this patient, but it will also prevent the spread of the virus to the family."
The vaccination drive began last week, with health care workers receiving the first doses.
The experimental vaccine, made by U.S.-based Merck pharmaceuticals, has been shown in trials to be safe for humans.