Military Escorts Back Ebola Response in Restive Congo Region

(Bloomberg) -- Military escorts are helping health workers quell an Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic of Congo that’s killed 63 people in three weeks.

Congo is struggling to curb the worst eruption of the disease in a decade in a region prone to attacks by militias and sheltering more than a million displaced people fleeing conflict. It’s the second epidemic of the illness in the central African nation this year, after a flare-up in the northwest left 33 people dead.

World Health Organization and Health Ministry workers are using escorts from the Congolese army and the United Nations peacekeeping force in areas of insecurity, said Michael Yao, a WHO spokesman. Other key partners, such as Doctors Without Borders and the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies, eschew the assistance to maintain their neutrality.

“In some areas we are using escorts to enter some of the red zones for short interventions,” Yao, a WHO emergency operations manager and incident manager, said by phone Wednesday.

The authorities have registered 103 confirmed and probable Ebola cases since the latest outbreak began on Aug. 1, according to the Health Ministry.

Rebel Dangers

The disease was first detected in North Kivu province, before spreading to neighboring Ituri. Most of the patients and deaths are around Mangina, a village near the busy trading town of Beni, 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of the Ugandan border.

“Part of the army’s work is to make sure that areas where medical workers plan to go to treat and monitor the disease are first secured and away from the danger caused by rebels,” Lieutenant Jules Tshikudi, spokesman for Congo’s army in Ituri province, said by phone on Wednesday.

More than 100 militias operate in the region, which is currently experiencing a spike in insecurity.

Jean-Edmond Nyonyi Bwanakawa, the mayor of Beni, blamed suspected members of the rebel Allied Democratic Forces for attacks near the town this month, including a recent assault on civilians in which seven people were killed with machetes.

Killings, Kidnappings

“The same week the outbreak was announced, there were killings and also kidnappings,” said Hassan Coulibaly, a field director for the International Rescue Committee. “The armed groups must be made aware of information about Ebola because the situation is critical and deaths are increasing each day.”

Unlike the outbreak in Equateur province in May, North Kivu and Ituri are among Congo’s most densely populated and its inhabitants are mobile -- including across frontiers with Uganda and Rwanda. More than a million people have been internally displaced by fighting, while many others engage in cross-border economic activity.

“A vulnerable and mobile population which lives on a red-alert basis, for an epidemic, becomes quite challenging,” especially the requirement of tracking those exposed to Ebola carriers, said Ombretta Baggio, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ senior adviser on community engagement. “We are obviously afraid the epidemic might spread across the border to another country.”

10th Outbreak

The latest outbreak is Congo’s 10th since the virus was discovered in the country in 1976, but the first to occur in North Kivu. Tackling Ebola requires educating communities, isolating the sick in treatment centers, identifying their contacts and vaccinating those exposed to carriers of the virus.

“We still don’t have a clear picture of the entire story,” Karin Huster, an emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, said by phone from Beni. “The limitations on intervention means all levels of the response are more difficult.”

Insecurity, coupled with local inexperience at confronting Ebola, means that volunteers from affected communities are playing an even more important role, with many people in the region believing that the illness is sent by spirits or ancestors, Baggio said.

“Changing a whole belief system in a matter of weeks is quite challenging and takes a lot of engagement and dialogue, especially with the influential people in the community,” she said.

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