Congolese health workers face violence when Ebola virus spreads


The number of deaths caused by the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to increase as violence undermines the efforts of health professionals to combat the virus.

There are now 358 cases of Ebola and 213 deaths since the outbreak began in August, according to the country's Ministry of Health.

The conflict between militant groups and government forces has made it difficult for health professionals to access some of the most affected areas.

Suspended operations

On Friday night, an armed group attempted to attack UN peacekeepers in the northern city of Beni, the epicenter of the outbreak.

The attack occurred near the Ebola Response Emergency Response Center and hotels where many Ebola health professionals are staying, according to the Health Ministry.

Peacekeepers were able to push the attackers back after several hours of clashes, but all field activities were suspended on Saturday from Beni because of the violence. The Emergency Operations Center remained closed and the teams had to stay in their hotels.

Earlier this week, at least seven peacekeepers were killed and 10 others wounded in a coordinated military attack on rebel forces, the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo said.

The peacekeeping force has partnered with the Congolese military in an operation to dislodge the rebel Allied Democratic Forces and "restore peace and stability in the Beni area," the UN said in a statement.

Deadly violence in northern Congo's Kivu province has hampered efforts to eradicate the Ebola virus, the country's Public Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga said.

Children among the dead

The outbreak – the second of this year – began in North Kivu province before spreading to the eastern Ituri province. This is the tenth time since 1976 that Ebola has hit the Congo.

Of all reported cases, 311 so far have been confirmed as Ebola and 47 are likely. Among the deaths, 166 are confirmed to have been caused by Ebola and 47 are likely, according to the nation's Ministry of Health.

Among the dead in the outbreak are pregnant and breastfeeding women, newborns and babies, the World Health Organization said. More than 30 health workers have also been infected, according to the WHO.

Fear of spreading

Congo is bordered by nine nations, and the United Nations fears that the Ebola epidemic could spread to South Sudan due to the influx of Congolese refugees.

Médecins Sans Frontières is in Congo and has also sent teams to neighboring Uganda, though no case has been confirmed so far.

Still, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday that "the risk of the outbreak spreading to other provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as neighboring countries, remains very high."

Kalenga, the health minister, posted a video on the Health Ministry's Facebook page earlier this Saturday urging communities to be vigilant and report any signs of illness.

"Community-based surveillance is at the heart of the new #Ebola response strategy. Each inhabitant, at his or her level, can protect his or her family and neighborhood against the virus, reporting any suspected cases and alerts to emergency personnel. The neighborhoods will work on our side in response, "he wrote.

The virus

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and Congo, and is named after a river in the latter country. It is one of the most virulent diseases in the world and is transmitted through direct contact with blood or other body fluids from infected people.

Ebola causes fever, severe headaches and, in some cases, bleeding. It spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids or objects contaminated by someone sick with the disease. In some cases, the virus is transmitted by contact with someone who died of the disease.

The virus enters the body through broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth. It can also spread through sexual contact.

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