May 17 (UPI) -- An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has spread to a major city -- Mbandaka, with a population of about 1 million people -- officials said.
The country's health minister said authorities are intensifying work to identify those who have been in contact with suspected cases. Another concern is the disease could be spread through commerce, as the city is a major trade thoroughfare on the banks of the Congo River.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization said Ebola vaccines have been delivered to help stem the crisis.
"A first batch of 4000 #Ebola vaccine doses just arrived to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additional doses should be deployed in the coming days to #DRC. There are ongoing preparations to start the ring vaccination as soon as possible," the WHO tweeted.
Despite a rapid response by authorities, there are fears the outbreak has not been contained. The WHO will hold an emergency meeting Friday to decide whether to declare an official health emergency, which would allow for more resources.
So far, 23 have died and until Thursday, the more than 40 confirmed cases were all located in the area around Bikoro, about 95 miles from the provincial capital Mbandaka.
"This is a concerning development, but we now have better tools than ever before to combat Ebola," said," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The health organization is working with Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, and other partners to increase the capacity of health facilities to treat Ebola patients in isolation wards.
WHO is also working with the Congolese Ministry of Health on prevention, treatment and reporting new cases.
"We are entering a new phase of the Ebola outbreak that is now affecting three health zones, including an urban health zone," Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga said. "Since the announcement of the alert in Mbandaka, our epidemiologists are working in the field to identify people who have been in contact with suspected cases."
The WHO also said there have been 27 cases of fever with hemorrhagic signs, including 17 deaths, since the start of April.
This is the ninth outbreak since the discovery of the Ebola virus in the country in 1976. In 2014, an outbreak that began in West Africa left more than 11,000 dead across six countries and was not declared officially over until the beginning of 2016.