U.N. staff on way to Congo to get experimental Ebola vaccine

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - World Health Organization and other United Nations staff going to the Democratic Republic of Congo as emergency responders to an Ebola outbreak are being offered an unlicensed vaccine as protection before they go.

The WHO's deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response Peter Salama told Reuters several staff had already signed up for immunization with the VSV-EBOV vaccine. The shot, developed by Merck, has not yet been fully licensed but has proven safe and effective in trials.

"For the first time, we are offering vaccination to all international responders - and we'll be doing that in Geneva and in Kinshasa," Salama said on Thursday in a telephone interview.

He said the first shots would be given in Geneva on Friday.

"I haven't got the latest on how many people have signed up yet, but I anticipate that a lot of people will get vaccinated."

WHO figures show there have already been 44 suspected, probable or confirmed cases of Ebola in this outbreak, and 23 people have died.

Potentially most worrying is a confirmed case in the city of Mbandaka, which has a population of about a million.

Salama, who traveled to the affected areas of Congo last weekend, said he would "certainly" be getting the vaccine before going for his next visit.

The first batch of around 4,000 Ebola vaccines was sent by the WHO to the DRC capital Kinshasa on Wednesday.

The health ministry has said vaccinations for local health workers and come contacts of people who have had Ebola can start by early next week.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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