Deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo now 2nd largest in history

The World Health Organization says Congo's deadly Ebola outbreak is now the second largest in history, behind the devastating West Africa outbreak that killed thousands a few years ago.

WHO is concerned about the high number of babies under a year old being infected

A health worker carries a four-day-old baby suspected of having Ebola into a treatment centre supported by Doctors Without Borders. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

The World Health Organization says Congo's deadly Ebola outbreak is now the second largest in history, behind the devastating West Africa outbreak that killed thousands of people a few years ago. It is already the worst Congo itself has ever recorded. 

WHO emergencies chief Dr. Peter Salama called it "a sad toll" on Thursday as Congo's health ministry, based in Kinshasa, announced the number of cases has reached 426. That includes 379 confirmed cases and 47 probable ones.

Health workers embrace while putting on their personal protective equipment at a newly built treatment centre. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

The WHO says it is also concerned about the high number of babies under one year old who are being infected. Since the outbreak began, there have been 36 cases reported among newborn babies and children under two, and 17 cases in pregnant women . 

Attacks by rebel groups and open hostility by some wary locals have posed serious challenges that Ebola workers say they have never faced before. Many venture out on critical virus-containment work only with the accompaniment of UN peacekeepers, while gunfire echoes daily.

This month, Salama predicted the outbreak in northeastern Congo will last at least another six months before it can be contained. The West Africa Ebola outbreak killed more than 11,000 people from 2014 to 2016.

There are 300 WHO specialists deployed to the country.  

Health workers move a patient to a hospital after he was cleared of having Ebola. (John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 37,000 people have received Ebola vaccinations. And yet the risk of Ebola spreading in "red zones" — areas that are virtually inaccessible because of the threat of rebel groups — is a major concern in containing this outbreak.

This week, Congo began the first trial to test the effectiveness and safety of four experimental Ebola drugs, the first time scientists have directly compared such treatments, according to the WHO.

The UN health agency described the multi-drug trial as "a giant step" that would "bring clarity about what works best."

"While our focus remains on bringing this outbreak to an end, the launch of the randomized control trial in [Congo] is an important step toward finally finding an Ebola treatment that will save lives," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

With files from CBC News