A New Surge Of Ebola Cases Suspected In Congo

Oct 17, 2018
Originally published on October 17, 2018 8:35 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

There are reports of a surge of new Ebola infections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today an emergency committee of the World Health Organization is meeting to advise on whether the outbreak should be declared a public health emergency of international concern. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has the story.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The WHO has only sounded the alarm this way four times, most recently in 2016, when Zika erupted in Latin America, and before that, in response to the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that infected more than 28,000 people. This outbreak in the DRC has been much smaller - about 180 confirmed cases so far. But it's centered in a particularly challenging area.

PETER SALAMA: It's a province that has been hit by more than 20 years of civil conflict.

AIZENMAN: Peter Salama is a top official with the WHO.

SALAMA: It has 1 million of its 8 million residents internally displaced. And it's a highly unstable, insecure part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

AIZENMAN: An armed rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces has been launching attacks on government forces, U.N. peacekeeping troops and also civilians. Now, Salama says, despite that, when Ebola first surfaced in early August...

SALAMA: We were quite confident we would get on top of the outbreak.

AIZENMAN: The government, WHO and partner organizations launched a major effort to treat infected people and administer an experimental vaccine to anyone who had had contact with them. The strategy started to show success.

SALAMA: And then what happened in September is we had seven or eight major attacks.

AIZENMAN: Violent attacks by the rebels, including one in a city called Beni, where they killed more than 20 people, mostly civilians.

SALAMA: The population of Beni just said enough is enough.

AIZENMAN: People who for years have felt completely abandoned by the government and the international community started turning against the health workers, who were seen as an arm of the government. People would say...

SALAMA: Look, you can't even guarantee our physical security.

AIZENMAN: Why should we go along with this unfamiliar anti-Ebola campaign you're pushing? Now, Salama stresses that the vast majority of people are still cooperating. But rumors have started that the vaccination campaign is actually a plot to spread the disease. Members of a safe burial team were attacked with rocks and severely injured. And often after a rebel attack, whole neighborhoods shut down in protest.

SALAMA: We're not allowed to move, and the streets are barricaded by young people, sometimes burning tires or objects, and sometimes threatening with machetes or other weapons.

AIZENMAN: In the last week and a half, the effects of this have started to become clear - with not just a rise in the number of new cases each week, but ever more cases who contracted Ebola from someone the WHO had not previously known about. That's the situation that the emergency committee that's meeting today has been asked to assess. David Heymann is an infectious disease expert and an adviser to the WHO.

DAVID HEYMANN: Some feel that by calling a public health emergency, it will increase political importance of the event. It will possibly increase the mobilization of funds.

AIZENMAN: The WHO has asked for $33 million to help neighboring countries prepare for the possibility of a spread across their borders. And declaring this kind of emergency could also have a wider effect.

HEYMANN: It may also help in increasing the security in the area...

AIZENMAN: By convincing the U.N. or other groups to bolster peacekeeping efforts. But Heymann says there's also a danger here.

HEYMANN: There are others who feel that maybe such a declaration would embolden the rebel forces.

AIZENMAN: They'll figure ending this Ebola crisis is clearly important to the DRC, and the rebels don't want the government to succeed. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

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