As It Happens

Deadly attacks on Ebola workers in Congo 'a huge setback,' says aid worker

Four health workers have been murdered eastern Congo, and their colleagues say the violence threatens the progress they've made in their fight against Ebola.

Murder of 4 health workers threatens progress made fighting deadly outbreak, says UNICEF

Health workers dressed in protective suits are seen at the newly constructed MSF(Doctors Without Borders) Ebola treatment centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 4, 2019.REUTERS/Baz Ratner (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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The murder of four Ebola response workers in eastern Congo is a "huge setback" in the country where health-care workers were finally making progress tackling the outbreak, says UNICEF's Grant Leaity.

Mai-Mai militia fighters simultaneously attacked Ebola centres in Mangina in North Kivu and Biakoto in Ituri, according to Jean-Jacques Muyembe, head of Ebola response for the area.

The World Health Organization said the dead included a member of a vaccination team, two drivers and a police officer. It said none of its own staff were killed and that most of the five people injured were from Congo's Ministry of Health.

Leaity, co-ordinator of UNICEF's Ebola response, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what this means for the fight against Ebola, which has killed 2,199 people in Congo since it was announced in August 2018. 

Here is part of their conversation.

First of all, I'm sorry for the death of your colleagues.

I know one of them personally. ... Thank you for that. That's a tragic thing to happen when you're doing this work.

Why are the Mai-Mai militias, why are they targeting health workers, people who are trying to deal with the Ebola crisis? 

Ebola is something that causes a lot of fear, and there are voices which position it as a fabrication.

From people in very isolated rural communities, they see people coming out of nowhere, you know, dressed in spacesuits. They see ... people going into these centres, many of them never come back. So there's a lot of challenge around having people actually understand what's going on.

There are some people who are vaccinated, but they're vaccinated too late and then pass away. And one can understand how some people see that as being the vaccination is the cause of Ebola.

So people are afraid of the health workers?

People are afraid of Ebola, and the health workers are associated with Ebola. ... There is a feeling that by these health workers coming in, they will actually spread the contamination.

A health worker injects a man with Ebola vaccine in Goma, Congo. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

So what does this do for the program of trying to prevent and help people with Ebola?

It's a huge setback. I mean, what's going to happen — and this is not the first time it's happened — is that we're going to ... go down to essential staff configuration.

Apart from having the teams in these place, the question is to what extent will they be able to go out and do their full set of needed activities.

So as we have to scale back our actual operational capacity on the ground ... that then is a situation where the epidemic is going to spread again a lot faster.

Is there any way you can get any security in there? I mean, you do have those [UN] peacekeepers. Is it possible to secure the program, to secure your work so that you can continue?

It's not a straightforward task. I mean, there are some aspects which are easier to secure than others.

An example is the actual Ebola treatment centres. Those are, you know, where ... the national police or the armed forces or the peacekeepers, those can be well-secured.

However, when we have teams going on the ground, these are very sensitive activities. If we are coming in to do, for example, a safe and dignified burial or, for example, we're going to come in and do decontamination of someone ... confirmed as having Ebola in their own house, of surveillance, which involves going around and [asking] a lot of questions — these are not simple activities, and having the presence of armed forces is a very sensitive presence in these kind of moments.

It's a very, very complex problem you're dealing with here. So it must be getting very difficult to recruit doctors and health workers who will help you with this, will go in and deal with the Ebola crisis.

This is the first hemorrhagic fever response in a conflict setting. We have not done this before anywhere.

You mean this is the first time you've had to deal with the Ebola crisis in a conflict, in a warzone.

Exactly. So it is hugely complicated.

There's a very significant degree of movement of population. But then, in addition ... we also have an active combat zone north of Beni between the government forces and the ADF rebel group. And that makes going into these locations very tricky.

One of the keys to success of containment is to get in very fast. So if there's a delay, if we don't have access, and if we don't have the confidence of the population, it's very difficult.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.



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