Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Ebola Flares Up Amid Attacks On Health Workers In Congo


Just a month ago, the president of Democratic Republic of Congo made a triumphant prediction - the Ebola outbreak in Congo would be over by the end of this year. Then unidentified gunmen launched a series of attacks on health workers. And now new infections are up to as high as 24 a week. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Dr. Marie Roseline Belizaire has been on the frontlines of this outbreak for the World Health Organization as a field coordinator leading some of the ground teams that identify new cases, vaccinate their contacts. Belizaire has found herself in a lot of dangerous situations, but she says none were as scary as the attacks that began on November 28.

MARIE ROSELINE BELIZAIRE: It was about midnight. We heard some gunshots.

AIZENMAN: Armed men were storming her team's offices near the town of Mangina. As police were fighting them off, Belizaire got a phone call from a colleague at an outpost two hours away. He told her, we're also under attack. And the gunmen have broken into our dormitories.

BELIZAIRE: I was telling them, please keep calm. Stay where you were. Stay under the bed.

AIZENMAN: Then he tells Belizaire one of the Ebola responders, a Congolese woman - she's been shot. While Belizaire is on the phone with him, this woman dies in his arms. He starts sobbing.

BELIZAIRE: It was, I mean, terrible because I cannot do anything for them.

AIZENMAN: By morning, a policeman and two more Congolese Ebola responders had been killed. All Ebola responders for that area have been evacuated, many to the city of Beni. That's two hours drive from the closest place where Ebola is spreading. To reach the furthest hotspot, they are ferrying staff in by helicopter for a few hours at a time. So they're still reaching the hotspots.

BELIZAIRE: But not every day.

AIZENMAN: And it's been like this for more than three weeks. Belizaire says this is unprecedented.

BELIZAIRE: It has never been as difficult because before, even though we have suffered some attacks - but we didn't leave. We didn't evacuated our team.

AIZENMAN: She says the United Nations and its member states should be doing more to protect health workers.

BELIZAIRE: They have totally failed.

AIZENMAN: The U.N. has a peacekeeping force in the area. And last May, after an earlier spate of attacks on health workers, the U.N. appointed an emergency Ebola response coordinator to oversee all aspects of the response, including security. His name is David Gressly. He says he's now working with Congo's government to uncover who's behind the November attacks. Gressly says it's very possible the gunmen were hired or somehow in collaboration with individuals who are trying to undermine the Ebola response for economic gain. There's a lot of money to be made off of this response.

DAVID GRESSLY: I think it's more important to look at all of this as set of criminal conspiracies rather than armed conflict.

AIZENMAN: In the meantime, Gressly says it's clear Congo and the U.N. need to step up security measures. Steve Morrison directs the global health policy arm of the Washington, D.C., think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

STEVE MORRISON: We haven't had the kind of high-level attention that's required.

AIZENMAN: Morrison says the larger reason this outbreak is still percolating is the continued insecurity and chaos in Congo. And so it's really up to the U.N.'s member states to come up with an aggressive plan for restoring peace because this effort to stop Ebola...

MORRISON: We are really at the edge of collapse here.

AIZENMAN: And if that happens, he says, it will be a public health catastrophe. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.