Violence Against Ebola Responders Plagues Outbreak Response As Case Counts Plateau

The number of Ebola cases per week has plateaued at a low, but consistent, count of 19 per week in the past 21 days, but the violent death of a radio journalist who had won acclaim for his Ebola outreach work has responders remaining vigilant. One Ebola case was also detected this week at a newly opened point-of-entry between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, highlighting a continued risk of regional spread.

The attack in Ituri province on Papy Mumbere Mahamba, just after he had completed a broadcast for a community radio station in Lwemba, left him mortally wounded, his spouse critically injured with multiple wounds, and his house in razed to the ground according to a statement released by the DRC Ministry of Health and the WHO African Regional Office as well as other eyewitness and media accounts. While the exact motives for Mahamba’s murder remained unclear, community members said he was a host for a popular local radio show that had been a vehicle for raising awareness about Ebola.

We are saddened and deeply shocked to hear about the death of community health worker and journalist, Papy Mumbere Mahamba who was helping tackle Ebola in the DRC. Our condolences to his family and loved ones. Humanitarians are not a target,” said Jamie LeSueur, emergency operations manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Africa and head of its DRC Ebola operation.

Since January of this year, WHO has documented more than 300 attacks on health workers, which have resulted in at least 6 deaths and 70 injuries of staff and patients. The Lwemba Health Area has been particularly volatile, with Ebola response activities previously suspended there for more than two weeks in September due to violence in response to the death of a local healthcare worker by Ebola.

Both WHO and the MoH condemned the attack on Mahamba in a statement, saying, “Any act of violence against individuals involved with the response is unacceptable and compromises the ability of health workers to provide assistance to communities impacted by the devastating effects of Ebola.”

Local journalists from Butembo and Lwemba (left) in a press conference with David Gressly (right) days after the death of their colleague, Papy Mumbere Mahamba.

UNESCO, which tracks murders of journalists, also condemned the brutal killing of the local radio host, with Director-General Audrey Azoulay calling it a “tragic illustration of the cost to society that violence against the media represents.”

Local news outlets have been important communication channels in the outbreak response, leveraging their reach to spread key messages that sensitize communities to Ebola response activities. Just days after Mahamba’s death, local journalists were back at work, telling UN Emergency Ebola Coordinator at a press conference that “the best way to pay tribute to our Papy Mahamba is to continue his struggle.”

As insecurity continues to plague the Ebola response as the level of access to affected communities in rural, hard-to-reach areas continues to fluctuate, WHO recommends interpreting the low weekly case incidence with caution.

Some 54 confirmed cases of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) were reported from North Kivu and Ituri provinces over the past 21 days, leading to an average of 19 cases per week, although case counts fluctuate daily. Some 31% of cases originated from Mabalako health zone and 39% of the cases were located in Mandima health zone, with 83% of all cases traceable back to Mandima’s Biakato Mines Health Area. The remaining 10 cases were linked to known contacts in the other health areas.

With insecurity plaguing the response and increased movement between the health zones, responders are concerned that the virus could be reintroduced into previously cleared areas or brought to new, unaffected regions. Approximately half of the cases reported in the past 21 days were located outside of the health zone where they had gotten infected.

The risk of the outbreak spilling over into other countries was a primary reason WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhomyn Ghebreyesus decided last month to keep the DRC outbreak designated a “public health emergency of international concern.” A WHO analysis of population movement shows that people continue to travel from outbreak hotspots such as Mambasa DRC over the border into Uganda. An Ebola case was identified while attempting to cross a newly opened port-of-entry into Uganda. Since a regional Ebola preparedness plan was announced in September, new reinforcement activities have been conducted to prevent the outbreak from spreading across borders, including scaling up EVD testing capabilities near the border on the DRC side.


Image Credits: Twitter: @davidgressly.

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