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The World Health Organization said Thursday it was deeply concerned over 2 violent attacks on Ebola treatment centers in 2 cities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this past week, which resulted in fatalities, traumatized patients and health care workers, and damage to key medical facilities.

Expand chart
Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios

Why it matters: Doctors without Borders (MSF), one of the lead international organizations helping the DRC's efforts to contain and eradicate the second-worst outbreak on record of the deadly virus, is now suspending its medical activities in the heart of the outbreak in Butembo and Katwa. As seen with prior violence that halted health care activities, interruptions in efforts to diagnose and treat infected people and vaccinate others can lead to an increase in new infections and deaths.

What's happening: A "toxic environment" has been created by a combination of people who don't believe Ebola exists and don't trust the government or international relief workers efforts, in addition to local politicians "promoting lies about Ebola" when they speak and through WhatsApp, DRC spokesperson Jessica Ilunga tells Axios.

  • "Such attacks are deplorable for their immediate impact on lives and for the risk of spreading the disease further. They are profoundly disrespectful of the dedicated work of local, regional and international responders," WHO said in its statement.

What's next: MSF says it will continue its operations in other parts of DRC, including in the towns of Kayna and Lubéru. The organization has also been supporting emergency preparedness in the city of Goma by reinforcing the surveillance system and ensuring there is adequate capacity to isolate suspected cases.

  • Emmanuel Massart, MSF's emergency coordinator in DRC, tells Axios that members of the Ebola response team need to approach the problem of community mistrust in a new way to mobilize the population to back their health efforts.
"Community engagement means that the population engages in the response. To do so they must be consulted about solutions. Strategy for health promotion and community engagement, for example, shall be developed with the community, and the ownership of it shall be left to them. The response must be adapted to the context, not the other way around. "
— Emmanuel Massart

Meanwhile, DRC health officials are looking for some patients who are missing after the attacks — some with confirmed cases of Ebola and others suspected of being infected — who had been in the Butembo treatment center, Ilunga says.

"We are of course extremely worried. Health agents should never be the target of violence. They have the right to be safe when they are saving lives. We will have meetings over the next few days to see what are the best options to protect our health agents as well as prevent the spread of the virus despite this difficult environment."
— Jessica Ilunga, DRC health ministry

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