Two Red Cross workers were seriously wounded on Tuesday this week when local tribesmen attacked them while they were carrying out safe Ebola burials in the northeastern Congo city of Butembo, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
According to reports, the latest attack was “the most violent attack on Red Cross workers in this outbreak” since September, when a Red Cross volunteer was injured when people threw stones at a vehicle transporting a burial team.
This is the first time this part of Congo has faced an outbreak of Ebola, which is spread via the body fluids of infected people, including the dead. Congo’s health ministry says there have been 130 confirmed Ebola cases, including 74 deaths, since the outbreak was declared Aug. 1.
Safe burials are critical in stopping the spread of the disease, and the Red Cross said it has carried out 162 in North Kivu since the outbreak, Congo’s tenth, began.
The World Health Organization, which last week announced that the risk of Ebola’s spread over Congo’s border was “very high” after cases were confirmed near Uganda, now says the outbreak is at a “critical point.”
The WHO director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has expressed concern about the virus’ spread into inaccessible “red zones” where “armed groups” have control.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday said more than 235 people have been killed in the Beni area this year in attacks with guns, axes or machetes. More than 165 others have been kidnapped.
Though many attacks have been blamed on Allied Democratic Forces rebels, Human Rights Watch said other armed groups and “certain Congolese army officers might be involved.”
According to a NPR report quoting World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Mike Ryan, “it was clear this outbreak was going to be extra challenging. It’s taking place in a part of the DRC where a violent conflict is raging.
“We’ve had relentless, persistent attacks going on,” says Ryan, assistant director general for emergency preparedness and response at WHO. “Since the 24th of August, we’ve had 11 separate incidents.”
Among the worst: Two weekends ago rebels killed more than 20 people — mostly civilians — in an attack on a city called Beni that is the current epicenter of the Ebola outbreak.
“That’s extremely close — that’s a thousand meters [a little more than half a mile] from where we have hundreds of people based,” Ryan said.
After that attack, it took world health officials and their partners in the government three days to fully resume operations. And when it comes to Ebola time is of the essence. The main strategy has been to isolate and treat anyone with symptoms, then quickly track down anyone who has had contact with them — and any contacts of thosecontacts — to give each of them an experimental vaccine.
The consequences of missing just one person could be dire. “Then potentially there are hundreds of more people exposed,” says Ryan.
Another obstacle to the vaccination effort: While thousands of people have agreed to be vaccinated, practically every day, Ryan says, “we’ve had situations where vaccination teams have arrived in villages and there’s been people claiming the vaccinators themselves are bringing the disease. And we’ve had vehicles stolen and people having to leave.”
There has been a similar backlash when teams come to do safe burials of people who died of Ebola. Often, says Ryan, the families of the deceased want the teams to conduct the burial, but others in the neighborhood or village have prevented burials by stoning the team’s vehicles — in some cases causing serious injuries.
On multiple occasions, people infected by the virus in the epicenter have refused treatment and fled to locations several hours drive away, only to surface once their symptoms have gotten severe. That happened most recently in a city right by the border with Uganda.