In Congo city where Ebola resides, fear but not panic

WION Web Team
New Delhi, Delhi, IndiaUpdated: May 20, 2018, 09:44 AM IST
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The first batch of 4,000 experimental Ebola vaccines to combat an outbreak is loaded into a fridge as it arrives at the airport in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo May 16, 2018. Photograph:(Reuters)

In the city of Mbandaka in northwest Congo, Mbombo Roge does not shake hands with friends anymore: Ebola changed all that.

Roge simply bowed when he met a group of friends on Saturday afternoon, obeying one of the key lessons taught by health officials since an outbreak of the deadly virus was confirmed in the city of 1.5 million people this week.

"Ebola doesn't forgive," said Roge on a street in the center of Mbandaka "We just greet each other with words so as to not get contaminated."

The Democratic Republic of Congo joined with world agencies and neighbouring countries on Friday in boosting the response to an Ebola outbreak in the sprawling country's northwest, as the toll mounted.

The health ministry declared it had activated an "action plan" in the city of Mbandaka after a case of Ebola occurred there.

After visiting the Mbandaka and launching a coordination centre there, Health Minister Oly Ilunga announced on television that all health care would be free.

"Financial hurdles should not in any way be a brake to having access to health care, especially at a time of epidemic," Ilunga said.

Democratic Republic of Congo faces a "very high" public health risk from Ebola because the disease has been confirmed in a patient in a big city, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, raising its assessment from "high" previously.

The risk to countries in the region was now "high", raised from "moderate", but the global risk remained "low", the WHO said.

So far, the changes in Mbandaka are subtle, but they point to a growing trepidation. At the small regional airport, health inspectors check the temperature of arriving passengers. Local aid agencies have gone to churches and schools to try to educate people of the dangers.

Soap dispensers have been put outside some local businesses so people can wash their hands before entering. Meat sales at riverside markets have dropped off, traders say, because of the fear of eating contaminated bush meat which can pass Ebola on to humans.

"We are scared of this epidemic. We can't make contact with people coming from outside," said border hygiene inspector Bolongoyi Juptie.

Not everyone is convinced of the dangers, and one resident said that Ebola can be cured through prayer.

But the general wariness is encouraging for health officials who remember how mistrust of doctors, nurses, authorities and western aid agencies made containment more difficult during the 2013-16 epidemic.

The reassessment came after the first confirmed case in Mbandaka, a city of around 1.5 million in the northwest. Previous reports of the disease had all been in remote areas where Ebola might spread be more easily contained.

They have started deploying emergency teams of specialists last week to try to prevent the spread of an Ebola epidemic suspected to have infected more than 30 people, they said.

The outbreak of Ebola in Congo, the vast central African country's ninth since the disease made its first known appearance near the northern Ebola river in the 1970s, is believed to have cost the lives of 25 people since April.

The outbreak is dwarfed by the epidemic which killed over 11,300 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016, but it brings with it some worrying echoes.

The Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever and is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person, who suffers severe bouts of vomiting and diarrhea.