Health Workers In Congo Face Violent Threats In Addition To Ebola

Mar 19, 2019
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Now we have a story of what can make an Ebola outbreak even more of a nightmare. The outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has infected nearly 1,000 people. And someone has been shooting at health workers trying to respond. Here's NPR's Nurith Aizenman.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Earlier this month, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, decided to visit an Ebola treatment center in the outbreak zone that had recently been attacked by gunmen. Congo's government had quickly reopened it. But hours before Redfield arrived, he says, the center was attacked again.

ROBERT REDFIELD: It was a foggy morning. And this group came in through the fog.

AIZENMAN: They shot a policeman dead, hacked at two nurses with machetes, before Congolese military chased them off. When Redfield met with the staff...

REDFIELD: You could see that they were physically shaken by the fact that they had just had another attack.

AIZENMAN: Also on this visit was the head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. And last Thursday, just as he was about to hold a press conference giving his impressions of the trip, there was an attack on another health facility serving Ebola patients. That center was ransacked. Police shot a bystander. But here's where the story gets complicated. These attacks were of very different types.

REDFIELD: I think it was an important awakening for me because I always assumed they were all one and the same.

AIZENMAN: According to Congolese officials, the Ebola treatment center that Redfield visited has been the target of organized, well-armed groups - first, one of dozens of rebel militias that have been clashing with the government in this area for years, and then...

REDFIELD: Individuals that were trying to extort money.

AIZENMAN: But last Thursday's attack on that other Ebola facility, that was a spontaneous outburst by ordinary citizens. One of their relatives had just died of an illness that health workers suspected was Ebola. When the health workers tried to take a blood sample from the body, the relatives became enraged. A lot of people think Ebola is a scam. After years of civil war...

REDFIELD: This community does not trust its own government.

AIZENMAN: Now, there's growing concern that the steps the government and WHO are taking to curb the rising violence from organized groups - for instance, bringing in the military or police or U.N. peacekeepers to provide protection - that these very moves could sow more distrust and lead to more violent resistance of the second kind, from ordinary people. Dr. Jaques Katshitshi is with the DRC's Red Cross.

JAQUES KATSHITSHI: The use of armed force is not the good manner to operate in Ebola operation.

AIZENMAN: Katshitshi oversees the teams that bury people who die of Ebola. After these recent attacks, it's too dangerous to work in a lot of communities without an armed escort. But the Red Cross won't do that. They're supposed to be neutral. So Katshitshi says the result is that right now, about 70 percent of burials in the epicenter are being done by government teams with armed guards. And it doesn't exactly win hearts and minds when a bunch of strangers in hazmat suits show up to bury your relative, effectively at gunpoint. Now, Katshitshi is focusing on an alternative.

KATSHITSHI: The community is trained to do the burial.

AIZENMAN: Trained teams within as many neighborhoods as possible to do the burials themselves. This hyper-local approach is also being proposed by an aid group called ALIMA when it comes to the transit centers, where people suspected of having Ebola are housed while they wait for test results. Nicolas Mouly is an emergency coordinator for the group. He says the current setup has been for ALIMA to operate one large transit center serving a wide area. And it's not surprising that people resist coming in.

NICOLAS MOULY: It's far from them. They don't really know what happens inside.

AIZENMAN: So now, ALIMA is working on opening smaller transit centers in many communities.

MOULY: Where the population knows the staff, knows the area and would be more willing to go for treatments.

AIZENMAN: The challenge with this approach - here's the Red Cross's Katshitshi.

KATSHITSHI: Going slowly because you need many, many dialogue with the community before they accept the approach.

AIZENMAN: Just because we're in an emergency, he says, doesn't mean we can do this quickly. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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