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Congo Faces Another Ebola Outbreak

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's been another outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have been more than 70 reported cases of Ebola in the DRC, including at least 44 deaths. This outbreak is hitting health care workers particularly hard. Nine health care workers have been infected, according to the WHO. Dr. Joseph Fair is a virologist and outbreak response specialist with the International Medical Corps. He's working on the ground in the DRC. And we thank you very much for joining us today.

JOSEPH FAIR: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just describe that part of the country for us for those who may not know it?

FAIR: Sure. So, you know, we're talking about larger than, say, you know, your normal African village. These are quote, unquote, "cities." These cities in particular are located near the borders of Uganda, a lot of countries surrounding DRC. So we are particularly tense and worried that we may run into a West Africa-like situation unless we concentrate immense focus right now on the outbreak and stop it from spreading further.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say concentrate immense focus, I mean, what does that entail? Are you getting the support that you need? Is the - I mean, obviously, you know, the situation in the DRC is difficult.

FAIR: Yeah. You know, it's all relative. Are we getting exactly what we need? No, just because communications, as you're seeing with this phone call, don't always work very well. So it's very hard to communicate amongst ourselves. We're dealing with a very spread-out geography, so the roads - and entering into the rainy season - make transport and just getting from place to place difficult. Now, add on top of that, we're in a conflict zone. So there is the fear, of course, that the conflict will somehow affect our ability to respond to the outbreak. It has not yet, but there is the fear that that could happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Given the reports that multiple health professionals have been infected, I'm wondering what impact that's having. Are we seeing health professionals sort of reluctant to engage with this outbreak? And what precautions are you and your colleagues taking?

FAIR: Well, first of all, health care workers, nurses and hygienists or cleaners are always the frontline of an epidemic, especially with Ebola. So it's not uncommon that health care workers are the ones that do suffer the most in the beginning, at least. And if they can't protect themselves, they can't help the patients, so that's why we focus very heavily on them. You asked about seeing a resistance in the health care workers. We're not seeing that yet. The health care workers are very tense, especially where they have reported cases, but everyone is still diligently doing their duty and showing up to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand this is the fifth time you've led efforts to contain an Ebola outbreak, so you do have some perspective. I mean, how bad is this outbreak? How quickly is the disease spreading? And how worried are you?

FAIR: You know, it's all relative. Before - everything in our world is pre-West Africa and post-West Africa. This is smaller than outbreaks that we saw pre-West Africa. It's smaller than previous outbreaks we've seen in DRC. However, we have never had an outbreak in DRC so closely aligned with the borders of DRC. And these are very porous borders, just like we had in West Africa. We could see up to, you know, thousands of cases in the next few weeks if things don't change as they are now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joseph Fair is with the International Medical Corps, currently working in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thank you so much.

FAIR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.