By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network
NEW YORK (IDN) – The risk of Ebola spreading in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remains “very high”, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on May 20. This warning follows a recent spike in the number of infections due to the virus in the unstable north-east of the country.
Since January, there have been dozens of attacks on health facilities in North Kivu, and on April 19, 42-year-old Dr. Richard Valery from Cameroon was killed in Butembo.
Here’s Tedros telling the World Health Assembly in Geneva what Dr. Valery’s colleagues told him, when he visited them in DRC: “They told me, and I quote, ‘We’re here to save lives. We will not be intimidated by violence. We will finish the job.’…Unless we unite to end this outbreak, we run the very real risk that it will become more widespread, more expensive and more aggressive…Ebola does not take sides, it’s the enemy of everybody.”
To date, WHO has vaccinated some 120,00 people against Ebola, which Tedros said was more than 97 per cent effective, and four experimental treatments have been given to 800 patients.
These remarks come against the backdrop that just over a month ago, WHO experts looked at the growing spread of Ebola in the DRC and declined to call it a “global health emergency” because only two provinces were afflicted with the killer disease at that time.
Despite over 1,200 deaths to the hemorrhagic disease, “(it) was an almost unanimous vote that this would not constitute a PHEIC (public health emergency of international concern),” said Robert Steffen of the University of Zurich at a news conference. “We were moderately optimistic that this outbreak could be brought under control – not immediately, but still within a foreseeable time,” Reuters quoted Steffen.
But instead of going away on its own, the disease doubled down on the Congolese, so much so that doctors are now calling it “the worst outbreak in the country’s history” and the second largest Ebola outbreak recorded anywhere.
It is important to recall that the DRC, by contrast with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, has successfully contained nine Ebola outbreaks, including one that surfaced in May 2018 in Equateur province.
ForeignPolicy.com reported on October 18, 2018: The constant presence of MONUSCO alongside the health care workers only exacerbates rumours and distrust among local people, who are already on edge about violence and view the national army as a repressive force.
A Congolese Ministry of Public Health team questioned local civilians, finding, “The Government is criticized for not doing enough to make it safe. The UN is judged to be complicit in the massacres here, and for not protecting the population except for a few battalions. And NGOs, people think they are here just to make money.”
Health care responders have reason to be concerned about their own safety, added ForeignPolicy.com. As Tedros put it to the U.N. Security Council on October 3, 2018, “We have taken every possible measure to ensure that WHO staff are kept safe, but as we deploy more staff to the field, the risks increase of an accident, or a kidnapping, or one of our colleagues simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In April of 2018, a Catholic priest was kidnapped outside his parish in North Kivu: The Catholic Church paid a $500,000 ransom for his release. That week, another nine individuals were abducted in the region, with the kidnappers demanding ransom payments: Three were executed for nonpayment. The following month, in nearby Virunga National Park, a park ranger was killed and two British tourists were kidnapped for ransom.
A group called Kivu Security Tracker monitors killings, rapes, pillaging, and kidnappings in the region, providing grim, routinely updated maps and data on the chaotic, dangerous mess. A quick scroll through its most recently listed incidents reveals many people are killed for failing to pay money for their freedom or relinquish valuables, such as cell phones, to commandos for various armed groups.
Amid the scramble to contain the outbreak, social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp have provided a platform for all types of messages – true or otherwise.
A recent study in The Lancet found that people had been bombarded by misinformation. Sampling some 961 adults between September 1 and September 16, 2018 in the towns of Beni and Butembo, some 86 percent, said they’d heard Ebola didn’t exist.
About one in four, or 230 people, said they didn’t believe it existed. Similarly, some 86 percent had heard the disease was being used to destabilize the area, while more than one in three believed that to be true.
One Facebook page, “Véranda Mutsanga en Révolution”, now has 230,000 members. Many users ridicule others for doubting the existence of the disease or offer tips for staying safe – while other users fan multiple conspiracy theories.
Facebook has routinely been criticized for allowing false information to spread. [IDN-InDepthNews – 21 May 2019]
Photo credit: WHO | J. D. Kannah
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews