South Sudan health workers to get Ebola shots as Congo outbreak grows

(Reuters) - Some 2,000 healthcare and frontline workers in South Sudan are to be offered Ebola vaccines to try to stop any importation of the viral disease from an epidemic in Congo, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

South Sudan is one of the three countries - with Uganda and Rwanda - that the WHO said are “at very high risk” of having Ebola imported from an outbreak in eastern Congo.

The outbreak, which is concentrated in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, is now the second biggest in history and has so far infected at least 450 people and killed at least 270 of them, WHO and Congo health officials said.

In South Sudan, teams of vaccinators have been trained by global health agencies and are now ready to conduct the Ebola vaccination plan, the WHO said in a statement. It is scheduled to start in the capital, Juba, on Dec. 19.

Ebola spreads among people through contact with bodily fluids. It causes hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding, and in outbreaks, more than half of cases are fatal.

The WHO said South Sudan was on “high alert” for the disease, but said no confirmed cases had as yet been detected there.

The experimental vaccine, known as rVSV-ZEBOV and made by Merck, targets the Zaire strain of the virus which is the one causing Congo’s current outbreak.

It is designed for use in a “ring vaccination” strategy, where contacts or known cases of Ebola are traced and immunized to halt the disease’s spread.

Just over 2,100 doses of rVSV-ZEBOV have been allocated to South Sudan and those vaccinated will be followed up and monitored for a minimum of 21 days, the WHO said.

Reporting by Kate Kelland in London, editing by Richard Balmforth