A new wave of violence in DRC could cause Ebola to spiral out of control

Agoustou Gomis
A health worker is dressed in protective medical garments at an Ebola transit centre in Beni in North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo - REX

A new wave of ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is threatening to undermine efforts to prevent the spread of Ebola into other parts of East Africa and beyond.

A fresh outbreak of fighting in Ituri province means that thousands of families may be forced to flee across the Ebola zone of neighbouring North Kivu. The director general of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Tuesday that political instability will worsen the epidemic.

Humanitarian agencies have been warning for months that Ebola is spiralling out of control, threatening a repeat of the West Africa outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people. A mass movement of people within north eastern DRC, the heart of the disaster zone, could be catastrophic.

During a visit to North Kivu this weekend, international development secretary Rory Stewart noted the critical funding gap – calling out European countries which have offered “strikingly little”. Without an increase in financial support Ebola will continue to rage on.

Health workers and humanitarian staff remain worked to the bone, trying to halt the outbreak in a war zone while fighting for desperately-needed resources.

If protection protocols were properly followed and those infected sought early treatment Ebola could be contained relatively quickly, but this demands community cooperation. In the DRC, where distrust of the aid response has resulted in attacks on treatment centres and even the murder of aid workers, this is a difficult task.

It means the response must work with trusted community groups and leaders. Prevention and awareness is just as important as treatment.

Religious leaders like pastors and imams are particularly trusted by their communities in North Kivu. They are a highly effective but grossly underused weapon in the fight against Ebola.

World Vision has reached 12 per cent of religious leaders in at-risk communities so far, and have begun enlisting the help of leaders in Goma, anticipating a spread into the major trade hub bordering Rwanda.

The strategy is working, but we desperately need greater international support to expand it further. Halting Ebola in a conflict zone requires a unique mix of public health skills to deal with the potential pandemic. Doctors and health workers need to be peace builders, negotiators, broadcasters and training experts.

And this needs to be part of a holistic response – with increased focus on other pressing humanitarian needs. Part of the distrust that has hampered aid workers is resentment about apathy over long-term health problems like cholera and measles.

We are at a crossroads. More than 2,400 people have contracted Ebola, and 1,630 have died. Transmission may be reducing in some hotspots, but cases are accelerating in other areas. Only one active case is needed for the threat to persist.

Health workers in Uganda appear to have averted an international catastrophe for now, but the risk remains high in other neighbouring countries. Ebola has been reported just 43 miles from the South Sudan border, where unlike Uganda, local health networks would struggle to cope with an outbreak.

If the international community doesn’t step up its game, we can expect Ebola to spread. It will kill more people, tear more families apart and leave countless more children orphaned. 

I wish this weren’t a familiar scenario. It was only five years ago that health workers in West Africa issued a similar ultimatum: either invest in preventing Ebola, or wait for it to appear on your doorstep.

Like many people who fought on the frontlines of the worst outbreak in history, I’ll never forget the three long years of preventable suffering. Ebola results in an incredibly painful and dehumanising death.

For almost an entire year we’ve implored time and time again that investment in prevention is critical. Dr Tedros has warned that international health systems are only as “strong as the weakest link”.

My message to world leaders is this: don’t wait until Ebola is threatening your own borders before acting. 

  • Dr Agoustou Gomis is the Ebola virus disease project coordinator for World Vision DRC

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