The deadly Ebola virus was discovered in the northern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 and since then the African country has experienced ten outbreaks.
The disease causes hemorrhagic fever, vomiting and diarrhea and kills about half of the people it infects. Health experts have long been working on vaccines to control the outbreak and have conducted experimental treatments to make progress.
However, a recent report by the World Health Organization showed that the political unrest in the African country might spin the disease out of control.
As health experts made progress in taking precautions, the number of reported cases dropped from 40 to ten. However, experts fear the political instability might put the progress at risk because health practitioners are unable to reach the epicenter of the outbreak.
This is mainly because they are sidelined due to rioting and suspicion of government forces. The new wave of political violence and the spread of misinformation are further spreading the deadly virus.
The country’s north eastern city of Beni is the epicenter of the outbreak.
Under a quarter million people live in the city who are at risk of the getting the infection. However, the escalating political tension in the country is hindering medical professionals to reach the city.
According to WHO’s emergency response chief Dr. Peter Salama, the organization had initially planned to contain the virus in three months but the political instability and misinformation has now pushed the plan further.
They now fear it could stretch up to several more months and the financial support needed in the process will also be much more than estimated.
The recent example of how the unrest is affecting medical efforts is the violent attack in Beni which was believed to be carried out by rebel group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF.) The attack killed 17 civilians and has left the city, as termed by Salama, into a “ville morte” which means dead city and refers to public mourning.
The attack has widely affected the medical response to Ebola because people of the country are now blaming the government of not taking adequate steps to control violence. Moreover, they are also blaming officials for the outbreak of Ebola.
As a result, people took to roads in protests and the riots resulted in medical experts not reaching where they are needed. The riots and violence pushed Beni to go on a complete lockdown for a week that means no one can enter the city and the containment process also gets behind.
“This is exactly the scenario that people have long feared with this outbreak. Losing a week or more of containment efforts is a big handicap, and will likely spawn more cases,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow for the Washington-based Center for Global Development.
Not only did the riots affect efforts in Beni, but because of the civilian deaths people in other parts of the country also stood in solidarity with the city and announced to mourn, resulting in a lockdown.
This means the process of containing the outbreak didn’t stop in one part of the country but in several other parts as well. The process is so complex and important that with every passing day where no data is collected means another person is highly at risk of catching the deadly virus.
And this can cause the outbreak to spin out of hand.
“As the days go on, if we do see unsafe burials that can’t be responded to, if we do see symptomatic people that can’t be accessed ? we can see this situation deteriorating really quickly. That’s a very scary scenario, where 80 percent of contacts we simply don’t know what happened to them today and yesterday,” Salama said.
In other cases that worsen the situation, some people also refuse to take precautionary measures and resist treatment altogether. This means that not only do they get infected with the virus but others near the person, family and friends, are at 100 percent risk of contracting the infection.
Rebel attacks and the events that follow are not the only things that hinder the process of containment.
Upcoming elections in the country are making matters even worse as local politicians are taking advantage of the situation and are spreading misinformation just to malign the current government.
They are spreading false news about the current officials and are forcing people to believe that the government is responsible for the deadly outbreak – and the rebel attacks are just making things easier for them as it is then easy to completely shut down parts of the country and portray the government in bad light.
“That resistance, driven by quite natural fear of this terrifying disease, is starting to be exploited by local politicians and we’re very concerned ... that exploitation of this very natural fear will gather momentum and make it even more difficult to root out the last cases of Ebola. This frightening high-threat pathogen will exploit these community and political fault lines and not respect borders, whether provincial or international,” added Salama.
People in parts of the country have resisted treatment by medical helpers so much so that they hide themselves in forests.
That makes the situation worse because a large number of people are then at risk of catching the virus.
On top of the rising tensions, Ebola is not the only deadly outbreak the country faces. Congo is also facing a yellow fever threat and a polio outbreak.
A Ministry of Health spokesman said the large amount of outbreaks in the country this year is unprecedented. The spokesman added although the country is doing its best to handle the situation but outbreaks like these go to show how important it is to have a strong health system.
Banner/Thumbnail Credits: Reuters, Fiston Mahamba