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Congo Grapples with ‘Very Serious’ Ebola Outbreak in Conflict Zone

Fear is growing of Ebola response workers in strife-torn regions of DR Congo -- including when workers enter communities wearing hazmat suits
AFP/John WESSELS

The World Health Organization on Thursday warned of a “very serious situation” in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where efforts to contain an ebola outbreak are being hindered by fighting between numerous armed groups.

“It’s a very serious situation. This is something that we have been fearing from the beginning; that the security situation will influence the response to the level that we cannot really function fully,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Voice of America News.

Several incidents of violence against aid workers have been reported, forcing medical teams out of the area.

“People who may develop the disease will not go immediately to treatment centers and will present danger to their environment,” Jasarevic said, adding that efforts to track the spread of the hideous disease were also compromised.

The latest situation report from WHO counts 238 cases of Ebola in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces, including 155 fatalities. The report noted a “disproportionate number of cases in children aged less than 16 years.” The outbreak has affected 21 health workers, three of them fatally.

“North Kivu and Ituri are among the most populated provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” the report noted. “North Kivu shares borders with Uganda and Rwanda. The provinces have been experiencing intense insecurity and a worsening humanitarian crisis, with over one million internally displaced people and continuous movement of refugees to neighboring countries.”

WHO warned those neighbors, especially Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan, to prepare for the possible spread of Ebola.

Doctors Without Borders, commonly known by its French initials MSF, also found the situation in the DRC “worrisome” in a Thursday report.

“While this outbreak of Ebola is the tenth to occur in DRC, the fact that it is occurring in a densely populated area marked by conflict and regular population movement complicates efforts to educate people about the disease, identify and track deaths and active chains of transmission, and trace contacts of those infected,” MSF warned.

The group also cited the high degree of mobility between DRC and Uganda as a point of concern, since people from the outbreak area commonly “cross into Uganda to visit relatives or trade goods, raising risks of transmission across the border and the spread of the virus throughout the region.”

The UK Guardian on Thursday reported that militia fighters killed two members of the Congo army’s medical unit on Saturday, along with 11 civilians and one soldier. Rebel forces also have a penchant for kidnapping children, who as the World Health Organization noted have suffered abnormally high levels of Ebola infection.

The Guardian quoted Congolese military spokespeople saying there are so many insurgent groups active in the area that it’s difficult to know which militia is responsible for each attack. Officials suggested rebels are actively hoping to make the Ebola outbreak worse to politically damage the government and jockey for position ahead of upcoming elections.

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