Seven months into the largest ever Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Ebola response is failing to bring the epidemic under control in a climate of deepening community mistrust, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said at a press conference in Geneva today. Since the beginning of the year, more than 40% of new cases are people who died of Ebola in the communities. At the epicenter of the epidemic, in Katwa and Butembo, 43% of patients in the last three weeks were still being infected without known links to other cases.
“We have a striking contradiction: on the one hand a rapid and large outbreak response with new medical tools such as vaccines and treatments that show promising outcomes when people come early - and on the other hand, people with Ebola are dying in their communities, and do not trust the Ebola response enough to come forward,” said International President of MSF, Dr. Joanne Liu.
Last week, MSF suspended its Ebola activities in Katwa and Butembo, in North Kivu province, after successive attacks on the two treatment centres. While MSF does not know the motives or identities of the attackers, these incidents follow an escalation of tensions around the Ebola response. Dozens of security incidents occurred against the response as a whole in the month of February alone. While the causes of these acts are not all the same, it is clear that various political, social and economic grievances are increasingly crystalizing around the response.
A range of issues have led to these tensions: from the massive deployment of financial resources focusing only on Ebola, in a neglected region suffering from conflict, violence and long standing health needs; to elections being officially postponed due to the Ebola outbreak, exacerbating suspicions that Ebola is a political ploy.
The use of police and armed forces to compel people to comply with health measures against Ebola is leading to further alienation of the community and is counterproductive to controlling the epidemic. Using coercion for activities such as safe burials, tracking of contacts and admission into treatment centres discourages people from coming forward and pushes them into hiding.
The Ebola response must take a new turn. Choices must be given back to patients and their families on how to manage the disease. Vaccination for Ebola must reach more people, and more vaccines are needed for this. Other dire health needs of communities should be addressed. And coercion must not be used as a tactic to track and treat patients, enforce safe burials or decontaminate homes.
“Ebola is a brutal disease, bringing fear, and isolation to patients, families and health care providers,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, “The Ebola response needs to become patient and community centered. Patients must be treated as patients, and not as some kind of biothreat”.
Seven months since the beginning of the current Ebola outbreak in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri, there have been 907 cases of Ebola cases (841 confirmed and 66 probable) and 569 people have died. [source: World Health Organization (WHO) report week 9]
Further to the suspension of its activities in Katwa and Butembo, MSF has maintained its Ebola-related activities in the North Kivu towns of Kayna and Lubéru, as well as its management of two Ebola transit facilities in Ituri province, in the towns of Bwanasura and Bunia. In the city of Goma, MSF has been supporting emergency preparedness by reinforcing the surveillance system and ensuring there is adequate capacity to manage suspected cases.