Ebola Continues to Spread in Congo, Stoking Regional Tension

By Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo
August 19, 2019 Updated: August 20, 2019

BLANTYRE, Malawi—Hundreds of people continue to be exposed to the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), raising fears of the disease spreading to neighboring countries and the wider region.

The World Health Organization (WHO) team in the DRC has reported 70 to 80 cases a week.

Overall, 2,758 cases and 1,819 deaths have been recorded since August 2018, when the pandemic first broke out in the country’s northern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.

“The current rate of transmission can be described as intense,” Dr. Margaret Harris, spokesperson for the WHO response team in the DRC, told The Epoch Times. 

Harris said the risk of transmission in the country and the region is high, although she downplayed the risk to the rest of the world.

Recently, a man died in Goma, an area close to the Rwandan border, after being infected a week earlier. It’s feared that his wife and a child could have also been exposed to the virus. Rwanda has since set up a screening checkpoint on its border with the DRC.

Response Challenges

The current outbreak in the DRC—the second-largest in history after the outbreak in West Africa that killed thousands a few years ago—was declared an international public health emergency by the WHO in July.

But health charities and government officials have raised alarms over the challenges facing the response to the outbreak, not least because of an acute shortage of funding. The instability in the country, fueled by conflict between the government and the militia, makes it dangerous for medical teams to trek to some of the disease hotspots.

Medical workers have constantly come under attack.

Harris, however, emphasized that local knowledge of the virus is essential, citing the example of West Africa where the virus spread quickly because “the people had not experienced it before.”

“The more local people are trained on how to deal with it, the more chances of controlling the virus,” she said.

The DRC has a vast geography, and while some areas of the country with experience of the virus managed to respond rapidly, it proved otherwise in North Kivu.

As Kivu is an area with a different culture, a long history of conflict, and no experience of Ebola, it took longer for the virus to be recognized and for the community to understand it.

“The biggest challenge to the response are fear and panic—people hiding their symptoms because they are afraid of the perceived consequences of having Ebola,” said Harris.

Regional Panic

The pandemic has brought panic to the region, and some neighboring countries have set up screening checks at their borders.

In early August, the Mozambican government announced the setting up of screening points on its borders with Malawi, citing a “suspected” but unconfirmed case in Malawi.

This means travelers from Malawi—which doesn’t directly border the DRC—will be monitored to prevent the Ebola outbreak in the DRC from spreading to Mozambique, Hidayate Kassim, the provincial health director of the Zambezia region, told reporters.

The Malawi government has, however, denied the alleged case in Malawi, reiterating its stance that there is no Ebola in the country.

“However, due to the recent developments related to Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the Ministry … continues to take measures to prepare, prevent, detect, and treat any Ebola case in the country,” according to a statement from Malawi’s Ministry of Health and Population. 

Joshua Malango, spokesperson for the ministry, said there were no current travel restrictions between Malawi and its neighbors, adding there was no need for “unnecessary alarms.”

Coincidentally, the UK’s Department for International Development, through UNICEF provided Malawi with 478,000 pounds ($581,000) to help with Ebola prevention preparedness programs, according to the ministry’s statement.

“The funds will among other things be used to train 500 health workers in border districts and ports of entry,” the statement read.

George Jobe, executive director for local charity Malawi Health Equity Network, said the issue is something Malawi should be concerned about.

“The intervention by Mozambique, although it has been proven to be untrue that Malawi registered a case, could just provide a lesson to the country to conduct screening in her border entry points,” Jobe said in an emailed response.

He urged the Malawian government to consider deploying health workers with the relevant expertise to escort Malawian soldiers operating in the DRC.

“Malawi should not only be worried that a soldier could bring Ebola to the country, but we can strengthen our prevention by providing backstopping protection to them as well, as they are citizens of this country doing a noble service,” he added.

Malawi, Tanzania, and South Africa are some of the regional countries in the DRC on U.N. peacekeeping missions.

Charles Pensulo
Charles Pensulo