Ebola has been declared an international health emergency after a patient brought the disease to a city of two million people in DR Congo and then died.
The World Health Organisation said it was ‘time for the world to take notice’ as the UN agency invoked its emergency provisions to contain the growing outbreak.
More than 1,600 people have died since August in the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which is unfolding in a region described as a war zone.
The patient, 46, was a priest who became infected while visiting the town of Butembo, which has been an epicentre in the ongoing outbreak.
The DRC’s health ministry claims the man took a bus the 200km (124 miles) journey from Butembo to Goma last week. The patient, who was a priest, died while travelling back for treatment.
Goma, which borders Rwanda, is a major transport hub. It has a population of more than two million, making it the largest city yet to be affected by the outbreak.
Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) have warned the priest’s case could be a ‘game-changer’, with Goma being a ‘gateway to the world’.
Health officials have reportedly identified 60 people who encountered the priest after he became ill, of which just half have been vaccinated against Ebola.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: ‘The identification of the case in Goma could potentially be a game-changer in this epidemic.
”[Goma] is a gateway to the region and the world.
”Just when we start to get control of the virus in one area, it appears in another.”
However, Mr Ghebreyesus has also urged people not to panic.
”We are confident in the measures we have put in place and hope that we will see no further transmission of Ebola in Goma,” he said.
”Nevertheless, we cannot be too careful.”
The priest showed no signs of ill health during the 18-hour bus journey to Goma and even made it through three medical checkpoints.
However, Standard Media reported:
”At each checkpoint, he wrote down different family names and forenames on the passenger list, which probably indicates a will to hide his identity and state of health.”
When he arrived in Goma on Sunday, he sought medical help after becoming feverish, according to the DRC’s health ministry.
Once diagnosed, he was taken back to Butembo the following day. Butembo is better equipped to treat Ebola cases, authorities said.
Carly Nzanzu Kasivita, governor of the province North Kivu, said: ”Unfortunately, I can confirm the patient died.”
‘He died during transfer by road,’ Aljazeera reported.
All 18 passengers on the deceased’s bus, as well as the driver, have been tracked down and vaccinated, the BBC reported.
The priest held regular services at seven churches in Butembo, where he would place his hands on worshippers, ‘including the sick’, the ministry said.
Ebola is highly contagious and spreads via the blood or other bodily fluids of patients, or contaminated surfaces.
The DRC’s outbreak has seen 2,512 cases and 1,676 deaths to date, officials figures show.
”Because of the speed with which the patient has been identified and isolated, as well as the identification of all passengers from Butembo, the risk of spreading to the rest of the city of Goma remains low,” the ministry said in a statement.
Around 3,000 health workers in Goma have been vaccinated.
Health officials have reportedly been dreading the arrival of Ebola to the city for months.
‘‘While not welcome news, it is something we have long anticipated,’‘ Mr Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter.
”We have been doing intensive work to prepare Goma so that any case is identified and responded to immediately.”
These preparations included outbreak stimulation exercises, screening travellers at entry and exit points, and checking health centres every day for suspected cases.