Future plague outbreaks in the east likely, WHO says

An assessment by the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that future outbreaks of plague, associated with a diamond mine in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, are likely, the agency reported on Thursday.

In an update on the pneumonic plague that broke out in February in Zobia territory in the northeastern province of Orientale, the head of the WHO team in Zobia, Dr Eric Bertherat, said there was a risk that another outbreak could occur since the wet season was due and would likely get water in the mine, attracting many miners.

"There is a risk that the outbreak will start with this coming of workers in the mine again," he said from Zobia. He was addressing a news briefing, over a satellite link, organised by WHO officials in Geneva.

He said while initial reports suggested that there might have been some 400 cases, a retrospective study and "more careful surveillance" had shown that there were now 57 suspect cases, including 16 deaths.

The WHO team arrived in Kisangani, capital of Orientale Province, on 21 February. Bertherat said despite logistical problems due to dense forests in the area, the team spent days assessing the situation in health facilities, looking for new cases and checking the situation in the mine, as well as the camp where the miners lived.

"We organised the contact tracing and we provided the contacts with specific antibiotics," he said.

He said it had been difficult to define what the real suspected case was, because since it was a pulmonary plague, there were also many pulmonary syndromes going on in the local population that were derived from poverty and "bad sanitary conditions".

The WHO team consists of epidemiologists, a clinician, data manager, logistician and experts in social mobilisation from the Congolese Ministry of Health, as well as WHO laboratory experts.