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Attacks on Congo treatment centers complicating Ebola response

Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock

Death toll has reached over 1200 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ebola is back in the news, and this time there is a troubling aspect to the fight against the disease in parts of Africa.

The current outbreak in eastern Congo is the second-largest ever recorded and is spiraling out of control, the New York Times reported. Complicating health authorities’ efforts, however, is the frequent interference from family members of the deceased and attacks on treatment centers and health workers.

“When a doctor was killed, and treatment centers attacked by gunmen or set on fire, front-line health workers suspended their work, giving the virus time to spread, the Times reported. “Some medical and aid groups have decided to pull some of their personnel from the very areas where Ebola has hit hardest.”

In spite of a new and effective vaccine and lessons learned from the 2013-14 outbreak, which killed 11,000 people, the death toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now up to 1,209, as of Saturday. The DRC Ministry of Health declared a new outbreak of Ebola virus disease in North Kivu Province last August 1.

This part of eastern Congo has long been beset by dozens of armed groups fighting over land, natural resources, ethnicity and religion—including one outfit with ties to the Islamic State, the Times explained.

In an unfortunate coincidence, the outbreak coincided with a national election. Many people in the Ebola-affected area, a stronghold of the political opposition, already distrusted the central government. To contain the spread of the disease, the government shut down polling places in the area, which left locals believing the government was merely trying to suppress their vote. Protesters then attacked an Ebola triage center in Beni and set it on fire.

In February, a Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Katwa, an outlying area of Butembo was also set on fire. That and another attack led to a slowdown in treatment.  And in April, a Cameroonian doctor working on the Ebola response with the World Health Organization was shot to death by intruders while leading a meeting at a university hospital in Butembo, the Times said:

Who is behind these attacks? Many health workers and foreign medical organizations say they do not fully understand the forces aligned against them. But they are all aware that resentment has been stirred up by the sight of late-model S.U.V.s carrying foreigners and Kinshasa bureaucrats through town, offering high-paying jobs to some but not others.

Mike Ryan, who runs the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, is confident about stopping the spread of Ebola. But to do so, he said, a political solution that reduced the violence was first needed.

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