FILE - A Congolese health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a child at the Himbi Health Centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 17, 2019.
FILE - A Congolese health worker administers Ebola vaccine to a child at the Himbi Health Centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 17, 2019.

GENEVA - The World Health Organization reports an experimental vaccine is saving lives and slowing the spread of the Ebola virus in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But as the first anniversary of the Ebola epidemic nears, the WHO warns many challenges remain before the deadly disease is fully contained. 

More than 2,600 cases of Ebola, including 1,756 deaths, have been reported in North Kivu and Ituri provinces since Aug. 1, 2018, according to WHO, making this the second worst Ebola outbreak after the 2014 West African epidemic, which killed more than 11,000 people.

A second wave of the outbreak in the Beni health zone is larger than the first wave one year ago, WHO reports. Beni accounts for more than half of the 242 new cases of Ebola reported in the last three weeks. Other recent hotspots include Mandima, Mabalako and Katwa.

Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO health emergencies, has credited the work of the international operation for preventing the spread of the virus outside North Kivu and Ituri provinces. In addition, there are no confirmed cases in neighboring countries.

More than 175,000 people have been vaccinated against Ebola as a preventive measure, he reported. 

"Ebola is a disease that can be controlled without a vaccine. But in this case, and particularly because we are working in such a very difficult situation, we believe the vaccine has been vital in breaking the chains of transmission," Ryan said, adding that he has been involved in about 17 Ebola responses over the years, but this is the first time a vaccine has been available.

While there is no shortage of the vaccine, Ryan said there are plans to roll out a second experimental vaccine, which would expand the target population to be immunized.

Obstacles ahead

Ryan said the progress being made is substantial, but challenges remain. He cited security as a major concern, noting that a number of health workers have been killed by armed men and some areas are off limits because of the existing dangers.

While most communities are accepting the need for vaccinations, treatment and safe burials, Ryan acknowledged that significant pockets of mistrust remain, which hamper efforts to tackle the disease.

In addition, he said, the operation is badly funded and more than $350 million is needed over the coming months to tackle the Ebola threat.