The Democratic Republic of Congo is grappling with the second biggest Ebola outbreak in the African continent's history. The outbreak is localized in Congo's eastern region, where an armed conflict between military forces and rebel groups is unfolding.
Preventing the spread of Ebola involves fast work under pressure as health workers must check all possible new cases, take blood samples, isolate the sick, and follow up with everyone whom a patient has been in contact with. A difficult task due to the conflict.
Medics have been unable to reach areas to administer the vaccine due to threats of violence and gunfire. Last month, humanitarian workers were temporarily evacuated from a base in the town of Beni as the situation became increasingly dangerous in eastern Congo.
"Sometimes the insecurity pushes us not to respond to calls, and not to go into certain areas for days," Mimi Kambere, emergency response coordinator for nonprofit group Oxfam, told Reuters.
Kambere spoke from the town of Goma on the northern shore of Lake Kivu where she and others had been evacuated to Nov. 17. She and her team had attempted to reach patients in a village when their vehicle’s path was blocked by men carrying axes and machetes.
Michel Yao, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) incident manager in the northeastern town of Beni, told Reuters that armed militants have posed “an enormous obstacle” for healthcare workers who have had to negotiate in order to access new patients. Phone calls to secure safe passage can delay vital early care and interrupt vaccination plans, he said.
"We never had to negotiate access to patients before. It's a specificity of this Ebola outbreak," said Yao.
A quick response to the outbreak is key. It’s a lesson hard-learned from the 2013 to 2014 epidemic in West Africa, the worst Ebola outbreak in history that killed over 11,300 people.
A slow international response contributed to the rapid spread of the deadly disease, which causes hemorrhagic fever, severe vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding. More than half of cases are fatal.
The conflict, which has seen a recent surge in violence, is coupled with "reluctance, refusal and resistance" from community members who turn down treatment, the WHO reports.
That’s because some Congolese believe the medics will spread the disease with their vaccination needles, while others do not believe the virus exists. Some medics, especially local staff, have received verbal death threats and have had rocks thrown at their cars.
WHO says the community resistance is driven by a fear of the virus, and of being exploited by local politicians in the lead up to a presidential election in December.