Inside story: How current DRC conflict is suppressing Ebola fight

Ebola victim in DRC being carried by health team. Courtesy photo.

While Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] has recorded nine other Ebola outbreaks since 1976, there haven’t been any in this region.

Aside from developing a security strategy, many further involvements used during the Équateur outbreak will remain the same, including contact tracing and use of the tentative Ebola vaccine.

Last month, a “ring vaccination” method which vaccinated health workers, along with all direct and secondary contacts of Ebola patients, was seen as a game changer in rapidly containing the epidemic.

 “There is some discussion to finalize the set of rules, prior to using our standard ring vaccination,” WHO regional emergency director for Africa, Ibrahima Socé Fall says.

“We will still vaccinate health workers who are at high risk, but instead of ring vaccination and because of the high security risk, we will target geographic areas. We can vaccinate a certain group of people in an area,” Fall added.

Health experts in Beni, the city closest to the epicenter of the outbreak, are organizing “cold chains”, a series of measures to keep the vaccines at the recommended temperature of -70 degrees Celsius when being transported from the capital, Kinshasa

DRC is a country experiencing compounded crises: On top of Ebola outbreaks, it is dealing with political tensions and inter-communal violence that has left over 13.1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

As of now, only 21 percent of the $1.7 billion needed to finance the updated 2017-2019 DRC Humanitarian Response Plan has been funded.

The initial draft of this latest Ebola response plan will cost $40 million, of which $2 million has been released by the WHO Contingency Fund for Emergencies with another $2 million approved by the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund.

However, Fall say they will need to seek out additional resources from donors to fully respond to this outbreak.

World Health Organization also announces it will prolong working with bordering countries to increase surveillance and preparedness activities, especially in Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, where internally displaced people have fled their country [homes] when evading violence in North Kivu.

Less than two weeks after an Ebola outbreak in the Northwest Équateur Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was officially declared over, the Congolese government announced another outbreak in the Northeast North Kivu region.

And although DRC’s 10th outbreak of Ebola, it’s the first in a conflict zone.

And while DRC government remains largely applauded by humanitarian actors for its quick reaction to possible cases, humanitarians also believe this outbreak may prove more challenging to contain due to heightened insecurity in the region.

Jose Barahona who is Oxfam’s DRC country director says Ebola response is often well-coordinated by the Congolese Ministry of Health. He however explained that this outbreak is unlike any other.

“At this time, the government of Congo publicly declares an outbreak after one case is confirmed, calls for help, accepts help, and takes the lead very well,” Barahona said.

Adding: “Usually, Ebola outbreaks are easy to control because they explode in isolated rainforest villages, but this area is in ongoing conflict with a much higher population density and lots of movement.”

Ever since declaring the latest outbreak on August 1, 2018, the World Health Organization has confirmed 16 cases, 27 probable cases, and 34 deaths across seven districts and two provinces.

Authorities in North Kivu initially alerted the Health Ministry on cases of hemorrhagic fever around the town of Mangina, roughly 100 km from the DRC-Uganda border.

This resource-rich region already has the highest number of internally displaced persons in DRC, according to the UN Refugee Agency and has long been an epicenter of armed violence and inter-communal conflict.

Many of the responders, such as logisticians, epidemiologists, clinical care specialists, and emergency coordinators who supported the response to the Ebola outbreak in Northwest Équateur province in May, remained in the country and have since been relocated to North Kivu.

“In order to navigate security restrictions and protect areas while trying to save lives, WHO will heed the advice of the U.N. secretariat and MONUSCO, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in DRC, on security protocols and how to access the most remote locations, for example, with the use of armored vehicles,” Fall explained.

DRC’s general elections are scheduled to be held on 23 December 2018 and high rate of insecurity is expected.

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