Jan 3, 2019 - Health

Ebola worries spike after Congo election violence

Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon and Harry Stevens/Axios
Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon and Harry Stevens/Axios

Worries over the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have spiked after violence surrounding last weekend's elections led to hundreds of refugees flooding bordering countries and caused DRC and international health workers to withdraw completely in some areas.

Why it matters: Efforts to treat and contain Ebola had been successful in the hotspot city of Beni during the early weeks of December, but experts say recent events have likely taken a significant toll on progress. That includes the government's move to reportedly shut down the country's internet in the wake of the election violence.

The big picture: Jessica Ilunga, spokesperson for DRC Ministry of Health, told Axios earlier this week that the protests have forced health workers to halt key response activities like "responding to alerts, contact tracing, vaccination and safe and dignified burials" — suspensions that could allow the virus to spread.

Attacks against health care workers have also been growing lately, partly due to simmering tensions due to the inability to vote and misinformation, Ilunga says.

"There have been rumors in the community, sometimes spread by local politicians to boost their popularity, that Ebola was created by the national government in Kinshasa to kill the Nande population, which is the majority ethnic group in that region. ... With the decision [to postpone elections in some areas], the population felt like those rumors were true after all and that’s probably why they expressed their anger towards health facilities and agents, who have been helping them from the beginning."
— Jessica Ilunga

What they're saying: Jennifer Nuzzo, public health expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Axios there was a "little bit of hope" a couple weeks ago when concentrated efforts reduced new infection rates, but that the situation is now "dire."

  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — whose expertise is "unmatched when it comes to Ebola" — must take on-the ground action as the change in migration patterns increases the spread of the virus, Nuzzo says.

While some CDC personnel were moved to more secure locations "when armed conflict threatened the safety of staff," some still remain, CDC spokesperson Benjamin Haynes tells Axios.

  • That includes personnel working directly with the DRC's Ministry of Health, staff in the World Health Organization's emergency office, and a senior CDC doctor working with USAID’s DART team on the ground in Kinshasa.
"Everyone appreciates the importance of having CDC experts supporting the outbreak response efforts as directly as possible, and there is a mutual desire to provide the best resources to fight the outbreak in the DRC."
— Benjamin Haynes

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