New Ebola fear as deadly virus spreads to city of two million

The Democratic Republic of Congo has confirmed an Ebola case in Goma, marking the first time the virus has reached the city of more than two million people since the epidemic began nearly a year ago.

Health workers wearing protective suits tend to to an Ebola victim kept in an isolation cube in Beni, Congo DRC. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The virus arrived after a pastor, despite feeling sick for several days, boarded a bus from Butembo traveling to eastern Congo’s largest city. Only upon arrival at his destination did anyone suspect he had the deadly and infectious virus.

The preacher managed to pass three different health checkpoints along the way, aimed at stopping those who are sick with Ebola.

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The health ministry said the man who had arrived earlier on Sunday in the regional capital had been quickly transported to an Ebola treatment centre.

After the case was confirmed the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO)said he would reconvene the UN agency’s expert committee to assess whether or not the outbreak should be declared a global emergency.

At a meeting convened in Geneva by WHO yesterday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the spread of Ebola to Goma was a potential “game-changer”.

He said the development was one WHO and Congolese officials had been prepared for however, but described the situation as one of the most complex humanitarian emergencies ever faced.

Authorities said they had tracked down all the passengers on the bus the man took to Goma from Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by the disease.

“Because of the speed with which the patient was identified and isolated, and the identification of all the other bus passengers coming from Butembo, the risk of it spreading in the rest of the city of Goma is small,” the health ministry said in a statement.

The virus has killed more than 1,600 people in Congo and two others who returned home across the border to neighbouring Uganda.

Health experts have long feared that it could make its way to Goma, which is located on the Rwandan border.

The health ministries in Congo’s neighbours have been preparing for months for the possibility of cases, and frontline health workers already have been vaccinated.

Health authorities along the bus route taken by the infected pastor are carefully tracking all those he may have been in contact with in a bid to esnure the virus doesn’t spread further.

“It’s the door of this region to the rest of the world,” said Dr. Harouna Djingarey, infectious disease programme manager for the WHO regional office in eastern Congo.

“From here you can fly to go to everywhere in the world. If we don’t have the control over the contacts, some high risk contacts may fly, take a plane and go somewhere.”

Congo’s health ministry sought to reassure people late on Sunday that the situation was under control, though some already were on edge after learning about the sick pastor.

“God help us if Ebola is now in Goma,” said Baudouine Rudahigwa, 30. “My children are now on alert that they can’t greet or play with others. They are washing their hands all the time.”

The health ministry said that the pastor had preached at seven different churches during his evangelical trip to Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by Ebola in Congo. Last Tuesday the preacher fell ill and was seen at home by a nurse before he began his bus trip to Goma.

Violent attacks against health workers and treatment facilities have greatly compromised efforts to combat the epidemic in Butembo.

Health teams have been unable to access violent areas to vaccinate people at risk of infection and to bring infected patients into isolation, and have faced attacks from angry residents.