WHO halts Ebola response in DRC after uptick in violence

A Liberian woman throws a handful of soil towards the body of her sister who died of Ebola in 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. Courtesy Photo/John Moore/Getty

A perfect storm of active conflict and traumatized communities has triggered fresh fear that the deadly disease that hit the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could spread further. This is according to a statement issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“We are now extremely concerned, that several factors may be coming together over the next weeks to create a potential perfect storm, limiting our ability to access civilians,” said Dr Peter Salama, the WHO Deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

His comments follow a spate of attacks, including one that killed at least 21 civilians on Saturday in the city of Beni, where WHO’s Ebola-response teams are based. “We’ve seen attacks now on August 24, September 3, 9, 11, 16, 21 and most recently and most dramatically September 22 in Beni, the base for the agency’s operation,” he said.

Dr Salama expressed concern that in the aftermath of the latest attack, outraged communities had declared Beni a ghost town, so that mourners can grieve, effectively suspending UN operations.

“We’ve heard this morning, that that ‘ville morte’ (ghost town), which was yesterday, has now been extended right through to Friday of this week,” he said, “which basically means for the UN family, including WHO, a lock-down in Beni. Our operations are in effect suspended.”

Butembo, a city that lies a few kilometers from the Uganda-Congo border, could also declare a ghost town in coming days in sympathy with the people of Beni, he said, potentially increasing the chances of the situation deteriorating rapidly.

Dr Salama said that if the burials remain unsafe and can’t be responded to, the situation may deteriorate very quickly.

In addition to many people’s fear of Ebola, the WHO senior official explained that the situation was being further complicated by local politicians who exploited and manipulated them prior to upcoming elections.

Dr Salama said that social media reaction to the outbreak was also adding to a range of conspiracy theories, adding that people have been actively fleeing health-workers, including in places where there have been a large number of cases in recent weeks.

In the nearly two months since the outbreak was declared, there have been 150 confirmed and probable cases of the disease, and 100 people have died, as of 23 September. Ebola’s symptoms include high fever and vomiting, which make it difficult to treat because it resembles many other illnesses in its early stages.

Dr Salama noted that the international response to the major public health threat had been excellent and that donors have responded “very quickly and generously” to this latest outbreak, which is DRC’s tenth since the 1970s.

But he added that this progress risks being undone by the uptick in violence in the Kivu’s, which is home to more than 100 armed groups, he said, before noting that neighboring countries like Uganda now also face an increased risk of the disease spreading.