OVERSTRETCHED health officials are rolling out an experimental vaccine in the desperate hope it could curb the spread of an Ebola outbreak in the Congo.
At least 26 people have died after the disease began in the country's western Equateur Province before spreading to the city of Mbandaka, home to one million people.
But there are fears it could spread further, with the capital city of Kinshasa and nine neighbouring countries placed on high alert.
There is no specific treatment for Ebola – a horrific virus that can have a fatality rate of 90 per cent and causes fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle pain and internal and external bleeding.
But some untested and experimental treatments are being used in a desperate bid to get the outbreaks under control.
The vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, was developed by scientists in Canada a few years ago and was used during the 2014 West Africa outbreak that killed 11,000 people.
Despite side effects that include headaches, dizziness and fatigue, it proved to be extremely effective when used in "ring vaccination".
This method involves providing the drug to a ring of people in contact with someone who's infected, thereby forming a buffer of individuals immune to the disease.
Last night Congo minister of health Oly Ilunga said: "The vaccination campaign begins tomorrow, Monday, in Mbandaka, capital of the province.
"It will target, first, the health staff, the contacts of the sick and the contacts of the contacts."
He added the campaign will initially target 600 people, mainly medical staff, contacts of suspected cases, and those who have been in contact with the contacts.
Officials are working urgently to prevent the disease from spreading beyond Mbandaka, which lies on the Congo River, a busy traffic corridor which is an hour's flight from the capital.
More than 4,000 doses are already in Congo and more are on the way, according to officials.
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A major challenge will be keeping the vaccines cold in this vast, impoverished, tropical country where infrastructure is poor.
Congo President Joseph Kabila and his Cabinet agreed Saturday to increase funds for the Ebola emergency to more than £3 million.
The Cabinet also endorsed the decision to provide free health care in the affected areas and to provide special care to all Ebola victims and their relatives.
EBOLA: A HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS AND DEADLY VIRUS
The Ebola virus, also known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a disease that occurs in humans and primates.
The virus is part of the Filoviridae family, which also includes Marburg virus.
To date, scientists have identified five strains of Ebola – four of which are known to cause disease in humans.
The epidemic which swept West Africa from 2013 to 2015 left thousands dead.
Ebola was first identified by a team of scientists in The Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976.
Prior to the 2014 outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the mortality rate of the Ebola virus had been between 25 per cent and 89 per cent – with an average of 67 per cent.
During the West African outbreak the mortality rose to 90 per cent.
The virus has an incubation period of two to 21 days, meaning symptoms can take up to three weeks to appear from the time of infection.
Early symptoms of Ebola include:
They are similar to those of other diseases, making diagnosis tricky in some cases.
Later as the disease progresses, it can cause:
impaired kidney and liver function
Internal and external bleeding
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