NAIROBI — An Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo has moved into its most worrying stage yet, with the World Health Organization’s head of emergency response warning of a “perfect storm” of factors preventing its containment.
The current outbreak is taking place in an active war zone, and on Saturday afternoon a rebel militia staged an hours-long attack in Beni, the city closest to the outbreak’s epicenter. Local media offered conflicting reports, but at least 14 civilians were confirmed killed, according to the Congolese government.
The attack spurred the government to declare a “ville mort,” or period of mourning, “out of respect for the victims” that will last until this Friday, effectively forcing aid groups to suspend their efforts to monitor and combat the outbreak.
“Every day we lose is another lost chance to care for patients, trace contacts, conduct safe burials and stop this outbreak before it expands further and further,” said Peter Salama, the WHO’s head of emergency response.
About 100 people have died and 150 cases of the virus have been confirmed across two vast provinces, North Kivu and Ituri. Congo is massive — spanning an area roughly equal to the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River — and this is its 10th Ebola outbreak. Congo’s ministry of health has gained a reputation for being particularly adept at containing the disease, but many factors in this current outbreak make that difficult.
Foremost is the conflict. Saturday’s attack was pinned on the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist group, in local media reports, though with dozens of armed militias active in eastern Congo, establishing culpability is difficult.
Another worrying development was the escape of an Ebola patient who later turned up in the lakeside town of Tchomia. That town has served as the disembarking point for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict, who pack onto boats that take them to Uganda, on the other side. The patient later died. Her partner, whom she took with her, is in an isolation ward in nearby Kasenyi.
This is the second Ebola outbreak in Congo this year. The first began in May and caused ripples of fear throughout the global health community when it reached Mbandaka, a city of more than 1 million on the banks of the heavily trafficked Congo and Ruki rivers. The international response was swift, however, and the outbreak was declared over in June with 33 deaths.
Ebola’s devastating power was proved during a harrowing 30-month period between 2014 and 2016 when it swept across West Africa, killing more than 11,000 and infecting 28,000. A few cases made it outside Africa, causing even further alarm. There is no cure for Ebola, and in a majority of cases it is fatal, though chances of survival are higher the sooner it is caught.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of an Ebola outbreak to control is misinformation. In Congo’s contentious political environment, conspiracy theories about Ebola are sometimes used to cast doubts or aspersions on rivals.
“We also see a very concerning trend that resistance, driven by quite natural fear of this terrifying disease, is starting to be exploited by local politicians,” Salama said at a news conference on Tuesday, “and we’re very concerned in the run-up to elections, projected for December, that that exploitation . . . will gather momentum and make it very difficult to root out the last cases of Ebola.”