The international community has sounded the alarm over a “heightened sense of fear and distrust” after three Red Cross workers fighting to contain Ebola were attacked and seriously wounded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reports The Guardian. The UN Security Council called for an immediate end to hostilities, while Human Rights Watch urged an investigation into the deaths of more than 200 civilians this year in and around Beni, the focal point of the latest outbreak.
The report says two Red Cross workers were reportedly seriously wounded when community members attacked them as they attempted to perform safe burials of Ebola victims in the north-eastern city of Butembo. It was the most violent attack on Red Cross staff since the outbreak began, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said. In September, a Red Cross volunteer was injured when people threw stones at a vehicle transporting a burial team.
“While we categorically denounce the attack on our colleagues, we understand the fear and frustration that many communities in North Kivu feel right now,” said Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, IFRC regional director for Africa. “People are scared and there are many rumours circulating that only serve to heighten the sense of fear and distrust.”
Safe burials are critical in stopping the spread of the disease, and the Red Cross said it has carried out 162 in North Kivu since the outbreak began. The report says security issues are also a major challenge for health workers. Several armed groups active in the heavily populated region near Uganda have carried out attacks, causing an estimated 1m people to be displaced in North Kivu province alone.
The World Health Organisation said Ebola cases had been confirmed near the Uganda border, including a confirmed case in the “red zone” – a highly insecure area controlled by armed groups.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, told a UN Security Council meeting that the chance of the virus spreading over Congo’s border was “very high”, adding that the outbreak had reached a “critical point”. “We are very concerned about the potential for the virus to spread into Uganda, but also into Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi. We are working very closely with those governments on operational readiness for Ebola,” he said.
According to the report, the WHO said it was working with partners to prepare for cases in Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. Health screening points have been established at 53 border crossings, with almost 6.5m travellers have been screened so far.
Human Rights Watch said that more than 235 people have been killed in the Beni area this year in attacks involving guns, axes or machetes. More than 165 others have been kidnapped. In the past four years more than 1,000 people have died. “The brutal killings of Beni residents won’t end until the commanders of the responsible forces are brought to justice,” said Ida Sawyer, the group’s deputy Africa director. “As Congolese authorities have not credibly investigated or prosecuted these atrocities, the international criminal court should investigate them for future trials.”
The report says though many attacks have been blamed on Allied Democratic Forces rebels, HRW said other armed groups and certain Congolese army officers might be involved. Military operations launched in the region have been ineffective, the rights group said.
The DRC Health Ministry has reported a further five confirmed cases of Ebola in the east of the country, blaming the higher-than-normal daily increase on community resistance to disease response efforts. Reuters Health reports that the current epidemic in Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces has seen 140 confirmed cases since July, 108 of whom have died, according to the ministry’s daily bulletin, which has been reporting an average of one to two new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks.
The ministry said the five new cases were located in the regional hub of Beni, where attacks by rebel groups in the area and local mistrust of the Ebola response campaign have disrupted treatment and vaccination programmes. “The town of Beni has become the new focus point of the disease, registering the highest percentage of cases reported in recent weeks following community resistance of certain families,” it said in a statement.
The report says the fight against Ebola has advanced more in recent years since it was discovered near the Congo River in 1976, but rumours, misinformation and a preference for traditional medical practices have hampered the roll-out of effective treatments during the current outbreak.
The WHO as warned that the epidemic was at a critical juncture due to security threats, community mistrust and an increased geographical spread of the disease.