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Violence and myths aggravate Ebola threat

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The east of Congo is not getting the Ebola epidemic under control. This weekend a sick man reached Goma for the first time. An outbreak in the densely populated metropolis would have disastrous consequences. Tijd reports.

The infectious Ebola virus reached the Congolese city of Goma on Sunday. This event has been feared for months because the densely populated city of millions is an ideal breeding ground and is close to Rwanda. Tens of thousands of people cross the border every day, so the disease can spread easily. An outbreak in Goma can derail the epidemic.

It is not that far yet, the Congolese Ministry of Health nuanced yesterday. For the time being it is a single case. The victim was a priest who came by bus from Butembo, a city in North Kivu where the disease is common. He would have preached there in a church and touched Ebola patients. The authorities immediately sent the sick man back and tracked down his 18 fellow passengers. They are now being monitored for 21 days.

“At the moment there is no outbreak in Goma,” says Marc Van Ranst, virologist at KU Leuven. “The virus has just passed. A real outbreak would have disastrous consequences. We are talking about a scenario of tens of thousands of deaths. “

The Ebola epidemic in Congo is already the second largest ever. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 11,000 people died in several West African countries. In the Congo the counter has so far been 1,655 dead, while 694 people recovered. The disease is not new, it is the tenth outbreak in 40 years. But despite the extensive experience and a properly working vaccine, it is difficult to control.

That has everything to do with where the virus broke out. “All Ebola outbreaks occur close to the jungle,” says Ivan Godfroid, who works for Rikolto (Vredeseilanden) in Butembo. ‘Wild animals transmit the disease to people who live close to the forest. In the past, the outbreaks were often small because they were sparsely populated, rural areas. But now the disease broke out close to the city of Beni. The population there is very mobile. She constantly travels back and forth to her family or plots of land. And the virus slips along. ”

Moreover, the virus is dormant in the east of the country, which has been unstable for 25 years and is being terrorized by various armed groups. That does not make it obvious to master the outbreak. In the city of Beni she did not get under control because the city was attacked several times, creating chaos and a large part of the population fled.

Because of that war situation, international medical teams are reluctant to go to the region, so the Congolese do the job themselves. That is not without danger. Ebola centers are regularly attacked and set on fire and staff members are killed. Two health workers died this weekend too.

“There is no clear explanation for those targeted attacks on Ebola centers,” says Godfroid.

“I think it has to do with the attempts of armed rebel groups to depopulate the area. The neighboring countries of Congo are eager to steal land and then Ebola is an interesting opportunity. The disease has killed many more people in recent months than the rebels themselves. “

In addition, there is great distrust of the population towards the care providers. Many Congolese do not believe that Ebola exists. “The population of Eastern Congo was slaughtered for years without a rooster crowing,” says Godfroid. “Nobody tried to stop the violence. And then suddenly there is an Ebola outbreak and hundreds of aid workers appear on the scene. People find that suspicious. They believe that the epidemic is only an excuse for aid workers and rich people as hotel owners to earn more money. ”

Another persistent conspiracy theory is that the government in Kinshasa imported the disease to prevent people from voting in the presidential elections at the end of 2018. The Ebola outbreak postponed the elections in Eastern Congo for months, until after the new president took the oath. Félix Tshisekedi. The Eastern Congolese are also afraid that the vaccines contain poison and that the care givers will kill their relatives. Sometimes they hide sick people, causing the epidemic to spread further.

“Local organizations try to disprove those myths,” says Godfroid. “That seems to be successful. It is also necessary. The disease can only be overcome if the entire population is convinced and adheres to the precautions. “

Source: Tijd.

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