Three new cases of Ebola have been confirmed in a city of nearly 1.2 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country's health ministry said.
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A single case of Ebola virus disease was confirmed earlier this week in Wangata, one of the three health zones of Mbandaka, the capital of the northwestern Equateur province. It was the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo's ongoing outbreak that a case had been detected in an urban health zone, with all other cases reported in remote, rural areas of Equateur province.
By Friday night, the number of confirmed Ebola cases in Mbandaka city had jumped to four. A new suspected case of Ebola was also reported there, according to the country's health ministry.
"We are entering a new phase of the Ebola outbreak that is now affecting three health zones, including an urban health zone," the Democratic Republic of Congo's Minister of Health Oly Ilunga Kalenga said in a statement in French.
Situated along the Congo River, Mbandaka is a densely populated transit hub at the crossroads of Equateur province, the health ministry said, raising fears that the Ebola virus will be easily passed on. Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids of infected people.
Downstream from Mbandaka is the country's capital, Kinshasa, which is home to roughly 10 million people. Just across the river from Kinshasa is Brazzaville, the capital of the neighboring Republic of the Congo.
As of Friday night, a total of 43 cases of hemorrhagic fever had been recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the outbreak was announced on May 8. That number includes 17 confirmed cases of Ebola, 21 probable cases and five suspected cases. Health care workers have been among those infected, according to the health ministry.
There have been 25 deaths among these cases, including one person who died from a confirmed case of Ebola.
A majority of the cases have been reported in Bikoro, the rural health zone where the current outbreak began, some 90 miles south of Mbandaka.
There are several types of hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the health ministry noted; thus, not all suspected cases are necessarily Ebola.
The health ministry said it had received 5,400 doses of Ebola vaccine Wednesday morning. Thousands more were expected to arrive in the coming days.
The World Health Organization (WHO) convened an emergency committee meeting Friday to discuss the "very concerning" developments in the country's Ebola outbreak. The committee acknowledged the "particularly high" risk of the outbreak spreading across international borders, given the city of Mbandaka's proximity to the Congo River.
But the committee said the response by the Congolese government, WHO and partners has been "rapid and comprehensive," and it provides "strong reason to believe that the outbreak can be brought under control." The committee also advised against any international travel or trade restrictions on the Central African nation.
Accepting the committee's assessment of the situation, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not declare the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
It's the ninth Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1976 when scientists first identified the deadly virus.
The latest Ebola outbreak comes amid an outburst of violence that has spread rapidly in the country's restive Kasai region. The violence was sparked by existing tensions between customary chiefs in Kasai-Central Province and the government in 2016, but the widening conflict has since pulled in militias, armed groups and security forces across an area the size of Germany.
The violence has forced families to flee their homes. About 3.8 million people in the Kasai region, including 2.3 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.