PREVENTION LESSONS

Teachers are getting Ebola prevention training as the DR Congo struggles to curb the latest outbreak

Prevention before cure.
Prevention before cure.
Image: Reuters/Samuel Mambo
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The new school year comes with a new threat in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

In the last month, an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus has spread throughout the country’s troubled North Kivu province. The DRC has been able to contain Ebola outbreaks in the past, quelling one in the west of the country in July that killed 33 people. But the circumstances around this latest outbreak are challenging the government’s well-tested systems. Since August 1, the World Health Organization has recorded 77 deaths and 115 cases of the deadly hemorrhagic virus in the country’s east.

The DRC has dealt with Ebola since at least 1976. Its well-established processes to control the spread of the highly infectious virus are why the central African country was largely spared when an Ebola epidemic swept through West Africa between 2014 and 2016, killing more than 11,000 people. Spread through direct contact with infected blood or bodily fluids, the disease is especially dangerous in high density areas.

In order to maintain some normality, the DRC has decided to continue with the new school year despite the outbreak. There are about 250 schools in the affected area with more than 82,500 children enrolled. Teachers and principals will be trained by health officials and aid workers in Ebola prevention, Unicef said in a statement on Aug. 29. Schools will be equipped with prevention posters and hand washing units, critical in limiting the virus’s spread, and staff have been given laser thermometers to monitor for signs of fever.

Outside of the schoolyard, though, containing, treating, and preventing the virus may be far more difficult. North Kivu is one the country’s most populous provinces, with eight million inhabitants, and has been plagued by fighting between militia groups. It is also the site of constant movement as it borders four other provinces, as well as Uganda and Rwanda. Cases of Ebola have been recorded  in the last month in the neighboring Ituri province.

The militia groups have made it difficult for the government and aid groups to respond to the outbreak. More than a million people have been displaced by violence and dozens are killed each month, according to the International Rescue Committee. In the last month in the town of Béni, where much of the medical response is located, 33 people were killed in violence, according to the Committee.

“With more than fifty armed groups operating in North Kivu, many areas are inaccessible to aid groups due to insecurity,” the International Rescue Committee’s Michelle Gayer said in a statement. “If someone contracts Ebola in one of these areas, there is almost no way of knowing and, therefore, no way of cutting the chain of transmission.”

These challenges have been compounded by the fact that local communities are fearful of bringing sick relatives to clinics and resistant to letting health workers safely bury their dead, something which is key to preventing the transmission of Ebola.

A new Ebola vaccine is being tested in this outbreak, with 4,130 people already vaccinated in the eastern DRC since Aug. 8, according to a WHO report (pdf). However the vaccine only protects against the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus, responsible for much of the West Africa outbreak, and it’s as yet unclear which strain is behind the DRC’s latest outbreak. It’s just another obstacle testing the Congolese health ministry and the aid community’s ability to cope with Ebola in the region.

This post has been corrected. It previously erroneously attributed the statement to the International Red Cross, instead of the International Rescue Committee.