The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is spreading at an alarming rate. Since the outbreak began approximately 10 months ago, there have been 2,000 cases recorded. Of those, 1,300 cases have been fatal. According to the DRC’s health ministry, it took seven months for the outbreak to reach 1,000 cases. The last three months has resulted in another 1,000 cases, highlighting the rapid increase in the virus’ spread. Experts have speculated that Ebola is now spreading in the DRC up to three times faster than when the disease first broke out in August of last year.
Though Ebola can be easily transmitted by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, there are vaccinations available to prevent the onset of disease. Health workers have been attempting to vaccinate communities but have been met with backlashes from numerous rebel groups. On May 3rd the WHO speculated that between January and the beginning of May there have been 42 attacks on health facilities, resulting in 85 workers either injured or killed. On Monday night, another 16 people were killed when Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) rebels confronted health workers in Beni. In addition to resistance from rebel groups, there is a general culture of distrust of health workers in the DRC.
Corring N’Daw, Oxfam’s county director in Congo, told Reuters, “The current response to tackle Ebola isn’t working. No matter how effective treatment is, if people don’t trust or understand it, they won’t use it.” When health workers arrive in areas where Ebola is prevalent, numerous steps must be taken in order to ensure that cross-contamination does not occur. For example, health workers will wear suits that resemble hazmat gear, and try to quarantine those diagnosed with Ebola. In order to control the virus, health workers may separate infected persons from other family members, clean or empty the victim’s house, and (if they have passed away) take their bodies away in plastic bags where bodily fluids are contained. Without any explanation, many of these acts can be frightening and bewildering to locals. It is likely that this lack of official explanation has resulted in violence against health workers. Though educating citizens on Ebola may not seem necessary, this is an important aspect of containing and treating any disease and should be dealt with seriously. Without education, fear and anger may easily lead to unnecessary violence.
The Ebola outbreak that occurred in Western Africa from 2014-2015 was largely a result of inattention to the importance of education. Medical anthropologists identified that West African burial rituals require a large degree of close contact with loved ones’ bodily fluids, identified as the key transmitters of the Ebola virus. It is often the case that the deceased were washed and clothed before being buried in marked graves. When military or medical personnel took over burial practices for those diagnosed with Ebola, bodies were buried safely and efficiently, but not in a manner that was culturally sensitive. Loved ones were barred from conducting ceremonial practices and interacting with the deceased at all. Without understanding why burials needed to be performed in a way that violated their customs and rituals, many have refused to hand the deceased over to health workers, prolonging their exposure to the Ebola virus. Guinea’s Ministry of Health speculated that upwards of 60% of cases in the country may have been linked to traditional burial and funeral practices. For Sierra Leone, the WHO estimated that about 80% of cases were spread through these very practices. Though burial practices differ between equatorial Africa (where the DRC is located) and West Africa, the outbreak serves as a telling example of the important role education must play to assist in disease prevention and containment.
In addition, since many had no knowledge of the high fatality rate associated with Ebola, hospitals and treatment centers were viewed as areas one was sent to be killed rather than cured. As this mentality began to spread, many avoided hospitals and medical staff, allowing the disease to disseminate rapidly.
Despite the Ebola outbreak of 2014-2015, the importance of educating African countries about Ebola concerning its containment and treatment was largely overlooked. This lack of attention toward dispersing necessary information and building the required infrastructure may have led to the current outbreak.