May 21 (UPI) -- The Democratic Republic of Congo started vaccinating against Ebola Monday in an effort to stop the deadly virus' spread to larger cities.
The World Health Organization said more than 7,500 doses of an experimental vaccine arrived in Congo would be administered first in Equator province Monday.
Nearly 50 suspected, probable and confirmed Ebola cases and multiple deaths have so far been reported, the WHO said. Most are located in the town of Bikoro and four confirmed cases are in Mbandaka, the provincial capital with a population of more than 1 million.
"Vaccination will be key to controlling this outbreak," WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "We are grateful for the support of our partners in making this possible."
Officials said a nurse is among the dead, which raises the Ebola toll to 27.
Health officials will first vaccinate the healthcare workers most likely to come into contact with Ebola patients. Others who contact Ebola patients will be vaccinated next, followed by contacts of those contacts.
"We need to act fast to stop the spread of Ebola by protecting people at risk," Dr. Peter Salama, WHO Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response, said.
The new vaccine, manufactured by Merck, was shown to be highly protective against Ebola during a 2015 trial in Guinea. No new cases were found after nearly 6,000 people were vaccinated there.
Some scientists, though, question its effectiveness -- suggesting the outbreak had already been well-contained by the time the vaccine got to Guinea.
Ebola can spread rapidly through contact with small amounts of body fluid, and its symptoms are not always clear. The virus can kill by causing excessive internal bleeding.
Ziko Ilema, a teacher in the region, told BBC News residents have stopped shaking hands to protect themselves.
"They forbid people to greet by using hands, eating animals from the forest, and people are now living with fear," Ilema said.
Seth Berkley (@GaviSeth) May 21, 2018