GENEVA - Preparations are being made to send thousands of Ebola vaccines next week to North Kivu, the site of the latest outbreak of this deadly disease.
The World Health Organization says it foresees huge difficulties ahead in efforts to combat the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
North Kivu province, the site of the new outbreak, has been riven with ethnic and political clashes for at least two decades.
WHO's emergency response chief, Peter Salama, said the operation getting under way in North Kivu will be much more difficult and complex than past Ebola response efforts.
Salama was at the forefront of efforts to combat an Ebola outbreak this April in the DRC's Equateur Province.
"On the scale of degree of difficulty, trying to extinguish an outbreak of a deadly high-threat pathogen in a war zone reaches the top of any of our scales," he cautioned.
WHO reports four of six suspected cases of Ebola have been confirmed in and around Mangina, a town of about 60,000 people in North Kivu. Around 20 deaths have been reported. Salama, however, said the deaths have not yet been confirmed as Ebola cases.
He said laboratory tests indicate that this particular strain is Ebola Zaire, the same one as in Equateur Province. He added that more information will be forthcoming Tuesday when genetic sequencing results are known.
If confirmed, he said it will be possible to use the same vaccine that was used in Equateur. He told VOA that preparations are under way to deploy vaccines to the affected area next week.
The bad news, he cautioned, is that the Zaire strain carries the highest case fatality rate of any of the strains of Ebola — 50 percent or higher.
"The good news is that we do have, although it is still an investigational product, a safe and effective vaccine that we were able to deploy last time around," he said. "But, remember last time around — and this is a critical point — we had really large-scale access despite all the logistical constraints to be able to do the contact tracing."
Salama said security constraints will make moving around in North Kivu far more difficult. He said 3,000 doses of the vaccine that are in the capital, Kinshasa, can be deployed immediately and 300,000 additional doses can be mobilized at very short notice.
Ebola is a constant threat in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the virus thrives in heavily forested areas. The newest outbreak is the 10th since the first one was discovered in 1976.