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Defeating Ebola : deadly outbreak in DR Congo close to being halted

While the spread of COVID-19 hits countries across the world, there is hope the devastating ebola outbreak in DR Congo is close to being halted

Mado Apula (14) from the Mbuti village of Bahaha, washes her hands to prevent the spread of ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire Mado Apula (14) from the Mbuti village of Bahaha, washes her hands to prevent the spread of ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire

These are difficult times for everyone. As COVID-19 spreads, we desperately need good news stories in these anxious and uncertain times. The fight against ebola in DR Congo gives us hope that even in the poorest countries, with enough energy, dedication and funding, we can defeat deadly virus outbreaks.

Over 2,200 people have lost their lives to the ebola virus since the latest outbreak began in the Democratic Republic of Congo over 18 months ago. Shockingly two-thirds of those who have contracted ebola in DR Congo have died.

However, there is good news. The virus has largely been contained, and there is now hope that the outbreak is coming to an end.

In January I travelled to the DR Congo, to learn about the inspiring projects that have been successful in fighting the outbreak.

Alundo Matope (61) shows his boxes of beehives. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire Alundo Matope (61) shows his boxes of beehives. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire

In the thick jungles of the Ituri region of DR Congo, bees are buzzing around me as Alundo Matope is proudly showing me his boxes of beehives. I’m trying not to get stung, but Alundo is so excited to show me his bees that I have to have a look.

Alundo is from the indigenous Mbuti group that have traditionally lived in the forest. Eating forest animals leaves them particularly open to contracting ebola, which like COVID-19, initially spread from infected animals to humans.

Trócaire’s local partners Caritas Wamba and CVAP have worked with Alundo and his community to raise awareness around ebola. Alundo is a respected community leader. He has used his influence to inform people to wash their hands, not touch dead bodies, and to stop hunting wild animals in the forest.

Alundo’s two boxes of beehives have also been provided through the Trócaire project. As a result, he no longer hunts in the forest for wild honey, and can earn an income through selling the honey.

Hand washing stations have been provided for the local community to improve hygiene. Children in the community sing and drum along to songs about ebola and it’s clear they know all the words off by heart. In this village, it is clear that the fight against ebola is working.

Children from the Mbuti community of Bahaha, giddy after singing songs about washing hands and preventing ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire Children from the Mbuti community of Bahaha, giddy after singing songs about washing hands and preventing ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire

Yet tackling ebola in DR Congo was never going to be easy. The country is one of the poorest in the world, affected by decades of conflict. Could you imagine trying to fight an outbreak in a country with vast remote areas affected by chronic poverty, a weak health system, with active fighting between armed groups?

Misinformation about the disease has also been a huge barrier to halting its spread. Bless is a Catholic priest based in the town of Mambasa who tells me that his own community were very angry with him when he went on the local radio to raise awareness about ebola prevention.

Rumours spread that the vaccine actually causes ebola rather than prevents it.  As a result of the misinformation, over 300 health workers have been attacked. A community radio broadcaster was stabbed to death in November.

For Bless, he says it is part of his mission and responsibility as a church leader to speak out and tell the truth about ebola. However, he says things have begun to change. He no longer feels anger from his community, and there is now widespread acceptance of how ebola spreads and the importance of halting it.

As I travel between these remote towns and villages, I’m impressed by the constant mandatory hand-washing stations, the ebola awareness raising songs blaring from sound-systems, and the information posters everywhere. I visit many villages where Trócaire has reached a quarter of a million people with ebola prevention projects. We have provided hand-washing stations, water tanks, latrines, and water pumps to provide safe water to people.

Six year old Kampale washes his hands at a water tank provided by Trócaire to his school, to improve hygiene to halt the spread of ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire Six year old Kampale washes his hands at a water tank provided by Trócaire to his school, to improve hygiene to halt the spread of ebola. Photo : Garry Walsh / Trócaire
Yet tackling ebola in DR Congo was never going to be easy. The country is one of the poorest in the world, affected by decades of conflict. Could you imagine trying to fight an outbreak in a country with vast remote areas affected by chronic poverty, a weak health system, with active fighting between armed groups?

Providing this sort of sanitation infrastructure, working with leaders, training doctors, and combating misinformation has made a huge difference. Countless lives have been saved. It is inspiring work to see.

I left DR Congo with a hope that the worst of this deadly outbreak is behind us. Over the last few months the number of new cases has dropped dramatically. The last confirmed Ebola patient was released from treatment two weeks ago. We are now in a countdown to the official end of the outbreak.

Unfortunately the first cases of COVID-19 have now been detected in DR Congo. The country is also dealing with a huge measles outbreak. There is much more work to be done, but the fight against ebola shows that we have tackled disease outbreaks before and we can do it again.

In many other countries around the world where we work, COVID-19 is beginning to hit. We all face difficult weeks ahead. We are there and we are ready to protect people, and we will respond where needed across the world. The fight against ebola in DR Congo shows that these outbreaks can and will be beaten.

COVID-19 knows no borders and neither does your compassion. We know not everyone is in a position to support this work right now, but if you can, please consider supporting our Lent appeal. Your support means we can provide hygiene kits, testing kits, information campaigns and other projects to communities affected by COVID-19 in places like DR Congo, Somalia and Sierra Leone.

Garry Walsh is Communications & Content Officer with Trócaire.

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