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In Democratic Republic Of Congo, Groups Try To Contain Spread Of Ebola


An outbreak of Ebola is taking a terrible toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 1,600 people have died, and 12 new cases are being reported every day. Now the World Health Organization says this is an international health emergency. David Gressly is the U.N.'s Ebola emergency response coordinator. He's on the ground in the D.R.C now. He's been working with the WHO and other organizations and governments to stop the spread of this outbreak. Good morning, Mr. Gressly.

DAVID GRESSLY: Good morning.

KING: So the WHO had the opportunity to declare this Ebola outbreak a global health emergency a couple times. They did not. But now they have. What does that do for your efforts to stop the virus from spreading?

GRESSLY: Well, I think it highlights to everyone in the region and internationally the seriousness of the outbreak here. It's been going on now for 15 months. It was only discovered 12 months ago, but it's been going on for 15 months. And we're seeing infections move into Goma more recently. But we had cases going into Uganda and another case getting close to the border of South Sudan. So while it's largely confined to the area in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, it keeps moving out to different areas and always a risk for a new chain of transmission to start. So I think that's where the real threat and concern is, that it could go much further than it has up until now.

KING: Well, yeah. Let me ask you about the city of Goma because we have the first case confirmed there. Goma is a Congolese city on the border with Rwanda. About a million people live there. It's a big place. How much of a problem is this?

GRESSLY: Well, it will be a problem if there's a continuation of the transmission from the case that came to Goma. Obviously, a lot of effort has just been done over the last 48 hours to try to ensure that there's no further transmission from the patient who came into Goma. A lot of contact tracing and vaccination of those who were in contact, not only in Goma but on the path that he took from Beni-Butembo all the way into Goma. So that seems to be going quite well. It's not enough to guarantee there won't be further transmission.

But if there were a further transmission, it's a large city. It has access. It's got an international airport. It's got access throughout the Congo. It's a busy airport there. And it's a big commercial center. And of course, there's a lot of movement across the border into Rwanda and into East Africa. So it remains a threat if it were to be established in Goma. But of course, as I said, we're doing everything we can to make sure that that doesn't happen, that the transmission is stopped with that patient.

KING: I want to ask you about this vaccine that you mentioned. I know that it has had some success in slowing the outbreak. Do all of the areas affected have access to that vaccine?

GRESSLY: Absolutely. What is happening is each time there's a case then those who have been in contact with that patient - family members, health workers - are vaccinated, offered the opportunity to vaccinate. Nobody's forced to take the vaccination. And secondly, there's what's called a fire - a ring system that's put around the cities of vaccination to vaccinate people more broadly to try to slow the movement to other parts of the country. And that has been, I think, successful, not in eradicating but containing the virus into the general area that it's been for the last 12 months.

KING: In the seconds we have left, how much longer do you think it'll be before this outbreak is contained?

GRESSLY: It will take a long time to really see this through. Even if we get down to zero cases, the possibility of new cases coming up is real because it stays in people's blood, and you can get new transmission.

KING: David Gressly, U.N.'s Ebola emergency response coordinator.

GRESSLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.