Congo violence sparks fears over UK Ebola response

Rebecca Ratcliffe


The UK has agreed not to publicly disclose how much funding has been allocated to the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, following warnings this might put those responding to the outbreak at risk.

Harriett Baldwin, minister of state for Africa, said the Congolese government had asked for these details not to be made public over fears this will put “a target on the head of some of the responders”.

There have been 130 attacks on health facilities since January, with 38 people injured and four deaths, according to UN figures.

Violence by armed groups and a failure to win community trust have severely hampered the response to the epidemic in the east of the country.

Since the outbreak began in August, more than 1,800 confirmed and probable cases have been recorded. As of Monday, 1,218 people have died of the disease.

Baldwin, also minister of state for international development, said the response had been complicated by political volatility, and a suspicion of international teams. “There has been to some extent a population who suddenly find a very extensive health response in an area where they felt underserved in terms of their health needs,” she told the international development committee on Tuesday.

Baldwin said the UK was one of the leading contributors towards the response, but added: “We have been told by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that because this is a very poor area, [and] a lot of money is flowing in through some of the actors in terms of this response, they believe that mentioning some of the amounts of money puts a target on the head of some of the responders.”

Johan Eldebo, regional security director for World Vision, who also gave evidence to the committee on Tuesday, said instability remained a huge challenge and that assessments were made by health teams on an almost daily basis.

“One day it might be perfectly safe to go to one part of an area, one village, and the next day it’s not,” said Eldebo.

He added that World Vision was working with community leaders, including faith leaders, to win trust, but that a long-term approach that tackled chronic poverty and instability was also needed.

MPs were told that an experimental vaccine, produced by Merck, was proving highly effective, but that health teams faced challenges identifying and reaching all people at risk of the disease.

On Monday, the international development secretary, Rory Stewart, said the UK would increase its support for the outbreak, including providing greater funding to the frontline response, such as health workers and vaccination efforts. He added that more expert staff from the UK would be providing assistance on the ground, and voiced concern that the disease could easily spread to neighbouring provinces and neighbouring countries.

He said: “We now need to grip this situation and ensure that the disease is contained.”