Doctors working to treat victims of the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) marched in protest on Wednesday demanding the government offer them more security after a local mob attacked an Ebola treatment center and killed three, including a prominent doctor.
Many residents of North Kivu province, where the outbreak has affected the largest number of citizens, believe that Ebola is a fabricated disease and that Western charities attempting to treat patients are actually killing them, luring them to their deaths with the promise of medical care. Some believe Ebola exists but was created in Western laboratories to kill Africans, and doctors treating Ebola are injecting healthy people with the disease. DRC President Felix Tshisekedi delivered a national address last week imploring citizens to believe that Ebola is “not an imaginary disease” and stop attacking doctors.
The doctors and other medical workers protesting on Wednesday are demanding an end to the attacks and threatening to go on strike if they continue. The protest occurred in Butembo, North Kivu, a key location for tracking and treating Ebola. According to La Libre, the number of medical personnel participating in the protest numbered in the dozens. Protesters held poster that read “Ebola exists” and “we say no to violence.”
Le Phare, a Congolese publication, reported Thursday that medical workers sent a letter last week to the government also demanding further security to ensure they can do their jobs safely:
The Ebola response coordinator in Butembo, one of the outbreaks of this epidemic in North Kivu, warned that if insecurity persists, medical staff plans to suspend all activities in the two treatment and response centers. against Ebola in Butembo and Katwa.
After announcing the care of patients who will seek their services at Ebola treatment centers, as well as those bedridden in the course of care, they demand the prosecution of suspects arrested in connection with investigations initiated by the FARDC.
The protests are a response to an attack on two Ebola treatment centers on Friday that killed three people. Among them was Dr. Richard Valery Mouzoko Kiboung, a senior epidemiologist from Cameroon who was in North Kivu and working with the World Health Organization (WHO). Local officials identified militia members responsible for the killing as “Mai-Mai rebels,” which does not necessarily identify which of the dozens of militias active in the area may have committed the killings. The attackers were certainly, the officials say, seeking to scare international aid workers out of the region.
Members of Congo’s military confirmed on Thursday the arrest of 11 individuals believed to have been involved in the attack.
The deadly attack preceded a similar strike on a health facility in nearby Katwa. That attack failed, resulting in only three casualties, all injured assailants.
Health workers have struggled with these attacks for months. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) documented “dozens” of attacks on Ebola aid workers in March, over 30 in the seven months leading up to the publication of their report. Many of these were arson attacks seeking to eliminate the health facilities entirely.
In one instance in February, the Guardian detailed, “assailants threw stones at the [treatment] centre before setting parts of the structure on fire. The brother of a patient died while reportedly trying to escape the scene.” A month later, an attack resulted in the death of a police officer.
“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic. It shows how the response has failed to listen and act on the needs of those most affected,” warned MSF President Joanne Liu in March. MSF withdrew from the country’s Ebola efforts that month.
As of April 23, the WHO has identified 1,367 confirmed cases of Ebola in DRC and documented 885 deaths. There are 66 cases of probable contamination and 66 deaths potentially attributable to Ebola.
Ebola is a viral disease that causes those infected to vomit and hemorrhage blood until they die. It is believed a person can contract Ebola only through coming into contact with an infected person’s blood, which makes it also a sexually transmitted disease. The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa spread particularly rapidly because locals insisted on conducting traditional burials, which require cleaning the person’s body and thus touching contaminated blood. In that instance, the deadliest outbreak of the virus on record, health workers also faced significant pushback from communities who believed the workers were infecting them with Ebola, rather than treating them.
The DRC outbreak is the second largest on record.