Election violence in Congo hinders Ebola response

Violent protests and attacks on health responders are complicating efforts to combat the deadly Ebola virus as it spreads through several cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), senior officials say, raising the chances that the virus may spread to major cities or across international boundaries.
 
The response was halted or slowed in several of the hardest-hit cities in recent days after protests over the country’s presidential election.
 
ADVERTISEMENT
The DRC’s main electoral board decided not to open polling places in the Ebola-affected region, sparking demonstrations against the government in a region where dozens of armed rebel groups hold territory.
 
“There are armed groups operating in that area in North Kivu, more than 20, and the frequency and intensity of attacks has increased since Ebola was declared,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), told The Hill in an exclusive interview. 
 
“It’s not really safe to really move as much as you want. There are areas that are called red zones that are not accessible because they are controlled by the rebels,” he said.
 
“During disruptions, that’s when there could be a chance for spread. So we’re trying to understand what the epidemiological situation looks like, and for now we’re doing our best to keep it as we did in limited geographic area.”
 
Tedros said the response was further hindered by the government’s decision to shut down the internet throughout most of the country. WHO officials on the ground resorted to communicating between several towns by radio.
 
And he said he is concerned about renewed violence when the DRC formally releases election results. The head of the country’s election commission said it is unlikely that those results will be released by Sunday’s deadline.
 
“The Ebola areas were excluded from voting, so there is protest from the community and this is further complicating the Ebola response,” Tedros said. “When the election result is released, we don’t know what exactly will happen. And that’s why we’re preparing for any eventualities. So even if there is a major disruption, our discussion was focused on how we can maintain the response.”
 
The DRC’s Health Ministry said Friday that at least 609 people have come down with the Ebola virus since it broke out in July in North Kivu Province, along the border with Uganda.
 
That makes the current outbreak the second-worst in modern history, after an outbreak in West Africa several years ago killed more than 11,300 people.
 
Of those infected this time, 370 have died and 208 have recovered from the virus.
 
Violence has marred the international response to the outbreak for months. In November, seven United Nations peacekeepers from Malawi and Tanzania were killed in fighting with guerillas. The State Department pulled several American health officials out of the region after an August attack on a Congolese army base.
 
Tedros spent the new year with WHO health workers in Beni, the city hardest hit by the current outbreak; in Butembo, a major trading hub near the Uganda border; and in Komanda, where violence has disrupted the response. 
 
One WHO worker was evacuated after a mob attacked a vaccination team on New Year’s Day, injuring several.
 
Tedros said the situation on the ground is tense, but that some of the leaders of youth gangs that had ransacked treatment centers and laboratory facilities had apologized and pledged to support the response.
 
North Kivu is the DRC’s largest province outside the capital, Kinshasa. It is home to about 8 million residents, a million of whom have been displaced by ethnic violence that has stretched back for decades. Islamist rebels claimed responsibility for a bombing in Beni in September that left nearly two dozen people dead.
 
“It’s a high population density area, high mobility, high displacement, the chances are there for spread,” Tedros said.
 
Health officials are already making plans to prevent the virus’s spread beyond North Kivu and Ituri provinces. 
 
ADVERTISEMENT
Teams, including some made up of workers from the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have already begun to vaccinate front-line health workers in Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. More than 54,000 people have been vaccinated in the DRC, the health ministry said Friday.
 
Health officials are particularly worried about the possibility that the virus could spread to Goma, the region’s largest city and home to its only international airport.
 
Vaccination teams have already reached nearly 1,000 residents of Goma, and health workers are screening passengers boarding flights that depart for Uganda and Kinshasa.
 
The current outbreak is the second to take place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past year. An earlier outbreak in a more stable region of the country killed 33 of the 54 people infected by the Ebola virus. 
 
Tedros said he is confident that the virus would be containable if not for the security challenges responders face.
 
“If Ebola is found now in a relatively stable area where security is not an issue, then I think we are prepared,” he said. “We can move people, we can move equipment, we can move resources more quickly than before."