The World Health Organization said Friday it was preparing for "the worst case scenario" in a fresh outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We are very concerned, and we are planning for all scenarios, including the worst case scenario," WHO's head of emergency response Peter Salama told reporters in Geneva.
WHO has tallied 32 suspected or confirmed cases in the northwestern area of Bikoro, on the shores of Lake Tumbathe near the border with the Republic of Congo, including 18 deaths, between April 4 and May 9.
The cases include three healthcare workers, including one who has died, Salama said.
The outbreak, declared by the DRC health ministry on Tuesday, is the DRC's ninth known outbreak of Ebola since 1976, when the deadly viral disease was first identified in then-Zaire by a Belgian-led team.
Salama said the affected region of the vast strife-torn central African country is very remote and hard to reach, with a dire lack of functioning infrastructure.
"Access is extremely difficult... It is basically 15 hours by motorbike from the closest town," he said.
WHO already has a team on the ground and is preparing to send up to 40 more specialists in epidemiology, logistics, contact tracing and other areas to the region in the coming week or so.
Salama also said the UN health organisation hoped to have a mobile lab up and running on site this weekend.
At the same time, WHO and the World Food Programme are working to set up an "air-bridge" to help bring in the supplies needed, he said, adding though that only helicopters could be used until an airfield could be cleared to allow larger planes to land.
The response "is going to be extremely challenging, and very costly," he said.
The WHO is also awaiting a green light from DRC authorities to begin a vaccination campaign in the area, using an available stockpile of an experimental vaccine, he said.
As for the risk, Salama said WHO was especially concerned about the near-term spread of the disease, including to Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province, which has around one million inhabitants and is only a few hours away from Bikoro.
"If we see a town of that size infected with Ebola, then we are going to have a major urban outbreak," he warned.
In addition, he said that the surrounding nine countries had been put on "high alert". The WHO was especially concerned about the possible spread to neighbouring Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, which has connections to the affected area through the river systems.
He stressed however that the possibility of international spread of the disease was still considered "low", but said the situation was constantly being evaluated.