Health workers began a vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the port city of Mbandaka, on Monday, armed with more than 7,500 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine.
The hope of this campaign is to stem the current outbreak, which is thought to have infected 49 people and killed 26 to date.
The vaccination program will first focus on areas affected by the outbreak, and will then work through a “ring vaccination” strategy. This means the next ring of vaccines will target people who have been in contact with someone assumed to be infected by Ebola, followed by people who then had contact with those people.
As its name suggests, this strategy builds a ring of vaccination around each suspected case of the disease. The tactic provides protection to those most at risk of contracting Ebola, while also preventing it from spreading.
This ring strategy was used during the campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s and ‘70s, according to Ars Technica.
Smallpox is the only human disease that has ever successfully been eradicated.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is moving quickly to avoid a repeat of the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people.
"It’s the first time in the midst of an outbreak ... that we’re using this [vaccination strategy] as a way to stem transmission," Peter Salama, WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response, said in a phone interview with Reuters. "It’s an important moment that changes the way we’ve seen Ebola for 40 years."
This vaccine could be a monumental win in ensuring global health, as it could greatly reduce the number of deaths associated with Ebola. Right now, Ebola kills about half of the people it infects.
Still, this kind of vaccination program is tricky, as the outbreak is in a remote area of the DRC, in the Equateur Province.
"Implementing the Ebola ring vaccination is a complex procedure," Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, said in a statement. "The vaccines need to be stored at a temperature of minus 60 to minus 80 degrees centigrade, and so transporting them to and storing them in affected areas is a major challenge."
Health workers are confronting the challenges as best they can.
The WHO, local health officials, workers from Médecins Sans Frontières and other partners have set up an air bridge, and are using helicopters and motorbikes to deliver supplies, according to Ars Technica.
The vaccine is being transported in containers with sub-zero conditions, and freezers have been set up in Bikoro and Mbandaka.
"We need to act fast to stop the spread of Ebola by protecting people at risk of being infected with the Ebola virus, identifying and ending all transmission chains, and ensuring that all patients have rapid access to safe, high-quality care," Salama said in a statement.
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