Health officials have warned that the second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola may spiral out of control unless attacks by armed groups on medical facilities and workers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stop.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the DRC’s health minister, said the government of his country was struggling to contain the spread of the virus amid a spike in violent attacks against doctors and hospitals that were dangerously delaying the emergency response. “The real emergency we face right now is security,” Kalenga said on the sidelines of the World Health Assembly, which is under way this week in the Swiss city.
“Each time there is an attack on a health facility or medical personnel, the response to the epidemic is put on hold and we lose precious time to stop the virus from spreading further”.
Kalenga’s comments highlighted growing concerns by the world’s health authorities, who fear a new pandemic just three years after the last outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11 000 people between 2014 and 2016.
“We are fighting one of the world’s most dangerous viruses in one of the world’s most dangerous areas,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), said recently.
“This outbreak is one of the most complex health emergencies any of us have ever faced.
“Unless we unite to end this outbreak, we run the very real risk that it will become more widespread, more expensive and more aggressive.”
Intercommunal violence has afflicted eastern DRC for decades, with a number of armed groups operating across a region that has historically been neglected by the central government in the capital, Kinshasa. The situation has worsened over the past years, creating hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people and almost a million refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
In addition to violent attacks, medical workers’ efforts to contain the spread of the disease have been hampered by widespread community distrust of health agencies and institutions. A recent study by the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal showed that more than 30 percent of respondents believed that the virus was fabricated for the financial gain of local elites or to cause further destabilisation.
For his part, Kalenga dismissed the suggestion that the attacks may hide a political agenda. “I think these are just spoilers in some of the provinces who want to see the government’s response to the epidemic fail,” he said. “I don’t think there is a clear agenda behind these attacks but the security agencies are studying the situation”. – AFP