Ebola - Just another emergency in a far-off land... that cannot be ignored

“People are confused, and they are scared,” World Vision DRC Humanitarian Response Director, Moussa Sangara

An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is spreading and has in-country, and foreign aid agencies worried.

Films about worldwide pandemics terrify audiences – but that’s not possible here in North America, right? Deadly viruses like Ebola are on the other side of the world.

But, it can, and has, happened here, which is why controlling an outbreak of Ebola where it originates is crucial to stopping the spread.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF), is currently the deadliest virus the world has ever seen. On September 30, 2014, the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. confirmed the first travel-related case of EHF – Thomas Eric Duncan, who traveled from West Africa to Dallas, Texas where he died from the disease.

Six countries, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, the U.S., and Mali reported deaths from Ebola from 2014-2016.

But concentrated efforts are underway in the Congo, where the disease is currently spreading. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “12 new cases of Ebola are reported every day in the DRC, and it has the potential to spread very quickly. A major factor contributing to the spread of Ebola can be attributed to the cultural customs of West African countries. It spreads in part because of how people traditionally care for one another in West African countries while they are sick and after a person dies.”

The outbreak in the Congo began last year on August 1 and has killed more than 1,900 people since.

Organizations like Women of Hope International and Doctors Without Borders among many others are working tirelessly to raise awareness among locals. Chief among them, World Vision Canada is helping through their Channels of Hope for Ebola program. I spoke with Joanne Legin in World Vision’s communications office about their work in the Congo.

SP: When did the disease enter the DRC?

JL/WV: The disease was first discovered in the 1970s near the Ebola river in DRC. This current outbreak is the 10th Ebola outbreak in the DRC. The current outbreak was officially declared August 1, 2018 but cases were showing before that date.

Source: According to Agence France-Press – it was reported that a tree in the area where children had played at, playing with insect-eating free-tailed bats and hunting and grilling them to eat (they are a cousin of another well-known Ebola reservoir, the fruit bat, whose role in this outbreak is not as clear), is believed to be the point where human infection – likely by the bats – with Ebola in this current outbreak occurred, the ‘ground zero’ of the epidemic. This is not yet known decisively, but scientists have enough knowledge to go public with the story.

SP: What is happening on the ground?

JL/WV: Since August 2018, we have been working with communities to improve awareness, prevention and understanding of Ebola, reaching almost a quarter of a million people to date. We’re relying on expertise from our work during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone in 2014-2015 to work with church leaders, community health workers, and teachers to ensure that patients are being diagnosed correctly and receiving proper care for their Ebola symptoms. Family members, caregivers and health care workers are being properly equipped to avoid infection. Health care facilities remain as sterile and well stocked with medicine and supplies as possible. Communities are taught how they can give their loved ones dignified burials without becoming infected themselves.

Another way we’re helping communities is through our Channels of Hope for Ebola program. Recognizing that faith leaders are among the most influential members in a community, Channels of Hope for Ebola fully equips them to promote accurate and responsible messages about Ebola and helps them to respond with compassion and care for affected people. Through this program, faith communities are engaged in actions that contribute to Ebola prevention, advocacy or care; community knowledge about mechanisms to prevent and treat Ebola increases; and survivors and families are supported and accepted. Community members learn through their faith leaders that tackling Ebola isn’t about their individual religious or cultural beliefs— it’s about the well-being of all men, women, and children in the community.

SP: Is it spreading quickly?

JL/WV:  Yes, all it takes is one case to pose a threat, so any case in the heavily populated city of Goma brings with it deep concern. The WHO has declared a “very high” risk for the region.

SP: How much of a concern is Ebola to the rest of the world?

JL/WV:  Although, at this time, the risk of international spread is low, the WHO believes that the risk of the Ebola outbreak spreading to other parts of the DRC and neighbouring countries is very high. They have made recommendations regarding international travel to help mitigate the risk of spreading the virus. The Government of Canada has issued its own set of guidelines for people who choose to travel to the DRC and the surrounding regions, urging travellers to follow all recommendations in order to stay safe.

SP:  The DRC is so far away, of course we should care about our brothers and sisters in far off places, but why should people in the rest of world care about this dire situation?

JL/WV:  The world should absolutely be concerned. The outbreak in 2014 is a prime example. It went on for months before we started seeing cases appear in Europe and the U.S. Just because it isn’t on your doorstep now doesn’t mean it won’t be in one year’s time. It’s cheaper if we stop Ebola now, rather than waiting until it gets out of control, as agencies have been warning for the past year.

SP:  How does Ebola start (enter) in the human body?

JL/WV: Healthy humans can become infected with the Ebola virus in the following ways:

  • Through close contact with the bodily fluids of infected wild animals, such as fruit bats (thought to be natural Ebola virus hosts), chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope or porcupines.
  • Through direct contact (i.e. broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is sick or has died from Ebola.
  • By touching objects that have been contaminated with the fluids such as blood, feces or vomit of someone who is sick or has died from Ebola.
  • Even babies are not safe from the Ebola virus, which can be transmitted from mother to baby in utero, during delivery or through maternal fluids such as breast milk after birth.

SP:  Some Africans believe that Ebola is a conspiracy disease meant to kill them and started by the military or others. What campaigns are going on in the country to stop this?

JL/WV:  World Vision and many agencies are working with community leaders who are trusted and well known in their communities. We identified combating these rumours as crucial to building trust and getting cooperation from the community. Without that, Ebola is unlikely to end. We are training people and enlisting the help of survivors to help spread the word.

FACT: World Vision experts on the ground have identified a number of myths and misunderstandings that are leading to fear, mistrust in the authorities, and undermining response efforts. They include: 

  • Ebola isn’t real
  • Ebola was introduced by armed groups as a way to kill people
  • The Ebola vaccine is a poison
  • International and local health workers introduced Ebola as a profit-making venture
  • It’s safer for the sick to stay home rather than seek treatment

SP: Ebola is easily spread, how are frontline workers/aid/medical staff protecting themselves?

JL/WV: Frontline workers are eligible for the vaccine. Apart from that we wash hands, disinfect ourselves and avoid contact with sick people. People working in treatment centres (not WV) wear full body suits, which I understand aren’t recycled – they use a new one each time to avoid risk of contamination.

“Our staff say there is widespread distrust with people believing all kinds of conspiracy stories that is resulting in anger at the grassroots level. This is why working with local trusted leaders to educate them about Ebola is incredibly important. They need to be the ones to get the right message out and this is why we are working with pastors and have used the radio to spread the correct information.” World Vision DRC Humanitarian Response Director, Moussa Sangara

World Vision’s previous Ebola response in Sierra Leone worked with pastors and imams to educate the population in a context where there was also mistrust.  That approach proved highly successful. World Vision is calling for funding to expand this work in DRC, as well as other programs, such as providing psychosocial support for survivors.

World Vision has trained more than 700 health workers, teachers and community members, including of pastors and imams across Beni, Butembo, Oicha, Katwa and Mabalako health zones in North Kivu. 

“All it takes is one case to put an entire community at risk. Myths and conspiracies about Ebola highlight why World Vision’s work to educate faith leaders, school leaders and other trusted community leaders about Ebola is so important,” World Vision DRC National Director, Anne-Marie Connor.

If you would like to find out how you can help in stopping the spread of the Ebola virus – please go to: www.worldvision.ca for more information.

Photo: World Vision – Grace with her children in their home in Beni, Democratic Republic of Congo. She received hygiene kits from World Vision International in an effort to prevent Ebola in the area. Photo: Patrick Meinhardt

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