Officials Warn of Possible Second Outbreak as Ebola Confirmed in Fifth Country
Japan awaits green light to supply untested drug as report from the World Health Organization highlights factors that have led to underestimated epidemic
Scientists are racing to confirm if an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which officials confirmed on Sunday, is a different strain than that which has killed nearly 1,500 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, potentially raising the specter of the crisis to two deadly outbreaks.
At a Sunday press briefing, DRC Health Minister Felix Kabange Numbi declared an "Ebola epidemic in the region of Djera, in the territory of Boende in the province of Equateur," Reuters reports, saying that two cases had tested positive for the deadly virus.
Numbi said that one case had tested positive for the Sudanese strain of the disease while the second was a mixture between a Sudanese strain and the more lethal Zaire strain, which has been linked to the outbreak in West Africa.
Following Numbi's announcement, officials with the World Health Organization said that the results had yet to be verified by the international health body and that results from a second lab are expected as early as Monday. However, Gregory Härtl, head of Public Relations, did say that the confirmation of a second strain would mean there is a second epidemic of the deadly disease.
The Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976 in the very same regional forest area of DRC as the current reported outbreak.
According to an update by the World Health Organization, as of Friday there have been 2,615 confirmed cases of the disease and 1,427 deaths.
On Friday, WHO issued a statement explaining how the fast-moving outbreak has been significantly underestimated, particularly in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The statement cites as contributing factors both fear of western health care workers and the stigma of being placed in isolation at one of the quarantine centers, which recent reports described as having limited access to food and health care and resembling the "plague villages" of medieval Europe.
WHO issued an additional statement on Monday calling attention to the "unprecedented" number of health care workers who have been infected with the virus, citing a lack of protective equipment and early misdiagnosis at health treatment centers.
Japan is reportedly waiting for WHO approval to provide thousands of doses of the anti-influenza drug favipiravir, known as Avigan, for the possible treatment of Ebola.
Though Avigan has not been proven to be effective against Ebola, Takao Aoki, spokesman for Fujifilm Holdings Corp which developed the drug, said Ebola and influenza viruses are the same general type, and a similar response can theoretically be expected from Ebola.
According to Aoki, the company has enough stock of favipiravir for more than 20,000 patients.