* Family members help patients to leave hospital
* Health workers tracing contacts
* At least 27 people have died in outbreak
* Next weeks critical to keeping virus under control-WHO
(Adds request for experimental treatment)
By Patient Ligodi
MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo, May 23 (Reuters) –
T hree patients infected with the Ebola virus slipped out of an
isolation ward at a hospital in Democratic Republic of Congo,
health officials said, as medics raced to stop the deadly
disease from spreading in the busy river port of Mbandaka.
The cases represent a setback to costly efforts to contain
the virus, including the use of an experimental vaccine, and
show efforts to stem its spread can be hampered by age-old
customs or scepticism about the threat it poses.
Two patients left the hospital in Mbandaka on Monday night
with the help of family members, then headed to a church, the
World Health Organization’s spokesman in Congo, Eugene Kabambi,
One died at home the next day and was buried with the help
of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). The other was
sent back to hospital and died that night, Kabambi said.
Health Ministry sources, who asked not to be named, said two
police officers had been deployed to help track them down.
Another patient who was close to being discharged left on
Sunday evening but was later found, Kabambi said.
The WHO and MSF said they could not force patients to stay
in hospital but hoped that growing awareness of the disease and
its risks would convince people to follow medical advice.
“This is a hospital. It’s not a prison. We can’t lock
everything,” Henry Gray, the head of the MSF mission in
Mbandaka, told Reuters.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said health workers had
redoubled efforts to trace contacts with the patients. Health
workers have drawn up a list of 628 people who have had contact
with known cases who will need to be vaccinated.
“It is unfortunate but not unexpected,” he said. “It is
normal for people to want the loved ones to be at home during
what could be the last moments of life.”
The report came as another WHO official warned that the
fight to stop Democratic Republic of Congo’s ninth confirmed
outbreak of Ebola had reached a critical point.
“The next few weeks will really tell if this outbreak is
going to expand to urban areas or if we’re going to be able to
keep it under control,” WHO’s emergency response chief, Peter
Salama, said at the U.N. body’s annual assembly. “We’re on the
epidemiological knife edge of this response.”
Health officials are particularly concerned by the disease’s
presence in Mbandaka, a crowded trading hub upstream from the
capital Kinshasa, a city of 10 million people. The river runs
along the border with the Republic of Congo.
The WHO said health officials received an alert on Wednesday
from Kinshasa’s main hospital, but the health ministry said
later that it was a false alarm.
The outbreak, first spotted near the town of Bikoro, about
100 km (60 miles) south of Mbandaka, is believed to have killed
at least 27 people so far.
The WHO said health workers were following up on three
separate transmission chains for cases in Mbandaka’s Wangata
neighbourhood – one linked to a funeral, one to a church and
another to a rural health facility.
There is no proven treatment for Ebola but Congolese
authorities have asked the U.S. National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to test an experimental
treatment, an antibody called mAb114, NIAID Director Anthony
Fauci told Reuters on Wednesday.
Fauci said mAb114, which is made from the antibodies of a
survivor of a 1995 Ebola outbreak in Congo, is promising because
it comes in crystallised form and does not need to be kept cold.
The WHO is also in talks with the Kinshasa government to get
its approval to use Mapp Biopharmaceutical’s experimental ZMapp
A health ministry spokeswoman said any experimental
treatments would first require approval by an ethics panel at
The disease was first discovered in Congo in the 1970s. It
is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an
infected person, who suffers severe bouts of vomiting and
More than 11,300 people died in an Ebola outbreak in the
West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone
between 2013 and 2016.
(Additional reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay
in Geneva, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Aaron Ross in Dakar;
writing by Joe Bavier and Aaron Ross; editing by Janet Lawrence
and Mark Heinrich)