Ebola vaccinations underway in Guinea.

Vaccinations against Ebola are underway in Guinea. Image credit: hr:UN.org

24 February 2021 – To add to the global Covid-19 woes, a new outbreak of Ebola in Guinea is a cause of concern in the West African region. However, to curb the spread, Ebola vaccinations are underway in Guinea.

The vaccination programme was launched in Gouecke, a rural community in N’Zerekore prefecture where the first cases were detected on 14 February 2021.

The Ebola vaccination of people at high risk that got underway earlier this week is an emergency response to counter the spread of the virus, that re-emerged in the country a little more than a week ago for the first time since 2016.

The vaccination was launched in Gouecke, a rural community in N’Zerekore prefecture where the first cases were detected on 14 February. The Minister of Health and Public Hygiene of Guinea, General Remy Lamah, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Vincent Martin, the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Guinea, Dr Georges Ki-Zerbo and the UNICEF Representative in Guinea, Pierre Ngom, were among the officials at the event.

The vaccination uses the “ring strategy” where all people thought to have had contact with a confirmed Ebola patient are given the vaccine, as well as frontline and health workers. The launch started with the vaccination of health workers.

“The last time Guinea faced an Ebola outbreak vaccines were still being developed. With the experience and expertise it has built up, combined with safe and effective vaccines, Guinea has the tools and the know-how to respond to this outbreak,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The vaccination began just 24 hours after Guinea received more than 11 000 doses of the rVSV-ZEBOV Ebola vaccine which were sent by WHO from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition, WHO is organising the deployment of more than 8500 doses from Merck, the vaccine’s producer in the United States of America, bringing to about 20 000 doses expected in the initial phase of immunisation.

The World Food Programme (WFP) is providing crucial logistical support by setting up special flights to transport the vaccines and other supplies to N’Zerekore from Conakry.

The quick rollout of the Ebola vaccine is due to the capacity Guinea built up during the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak. In addition, 50 Guinean health workers were deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since 2014 to support that country’s response to the past three Ebola outbreaks, and are now leveraging that expertise in their home country.

“The speed with which Guinea has managed to start up vaccination efforts is remarkable and is largely thanks to the enormous contribution its experts have made to the recent Ebola outbreaks in the DRC,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “Africans supporting fellow Africans to respond to one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet is a testament to the emergency response capacity we have built over the years on the continent.”

Implementing an Ebola vaccination strategy is a complex procedure as the vaccines need to be maintained at a temperature of minus 80 degrees centigrade. Guinea has developed ultra-cold chain capacity with vaccine carriers, which can keep the vaccine doses in sub-zero temperatures for up to a week.

So far, there are eight Ebola cases (four confirmed and four probable) and five people have died. Genome sequencing is underway in Senegal’s Institut Pasteur to identify the strain of the Ebola virus. Guinea’s health authorities supported by WHO expert teams and partner agencies are stepping up efforts to identify contacts, set up treatment centres, enhance surveillance, support the vaccination campaign and work with communities to rally them behind the Ebola containment efforts.

About 50 WHO international and national experts, including vaccinators, are already on the ground in Guinea and by the end of month, more than 100 WHO experts are expected to be part of the response to bring the Ebola outbreak under control. WHO has disbursed USD1.25-million to support the response in Guinea and to reinforce Ebola readiness in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Senegal and Sierra Leone. The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund has also released USD15-million to support the response in Guinea and the DRC and preparedness in the neighbouring countries.

Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea’s closest neighbours, are on high alert, upping public health measures and surveillance to quickly detect and stop any cross-border Ebola transmission. N’Zerekore is Guinea’s second-largest city and is close to the border with Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, in the DRC, so far there are four confirmed Ebola cases, including two deaths that are epidemiologically linked. WHO has around 20 experts on the ground supporting national and provincial health authorities in the DRC. About 8000 vaccine doses were still available in the country at the end of the 11th Ebola outbreak. The vaccination of people at high risk was officially launched in Butembo, the outbreak’s epicentre on 15 February. So far nearly 70 people have been vaccinated. The quick rollout of vaccines is a testament to the enormous local capacity built in the previous outbreaks by WHO and partners.

With the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea being a border area, countries in the sub-region are on high alert and increasing public health measures and surveillance in border towns and communities to quickly detect and respond to possible cross-border infections.

The ongoing response in Guinea and preparedness in neighbouring countries is building upon the experience gained during the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. WHO and partners worked with national teams to build capacity in all the critical areas of surveillance and response.

The West Africa Ebola outbreak began in Guinea and spread across land borders to Liberia and Sierra Leone. When it was finally brought under control there were 28 000 cases and 11 000 deaths, making it the deadliest since the virus was first detected in 1976.

Ebola is an acute severe viral illness and is extremely lethal. It is characterised by sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache, nausea, and sore throat. This can be followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.

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