- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2019

Ebola infections have slowed inside the initial center of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s outbreak, but the disease is marching south toward major cites, opening a critical new stage in the epidemic that’s already the second worst on record.

Responders are seeing “sporadic” cases in the DRC cities of Beni and Mangina, where the outbreak gathered momentum last year, but a larger cluster of cases just hit the twin cities of Butembo and Katwa. Worst of all, a quartet of cases popped up in a small town en route to the Rwandan border.

“That’s a concern because it’s on the way to Goma, which of course is a big market city town with crossroads to Rwanda and to a certain extent Uganda,” Peter Salama, the World Health Organization’s director of emergencies, told The Washington Times in a phone interview from Switzerland.

Goma is home to more than 1 million people and located along a major trade route, so preventing Ebola from gaining a foothold there is important.

Global responders have more tools than ever before to fight Ebola, an often-fatal disease that is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads from human to human through the bodily fluids of people who exhibit symptoms.

WHO is trying out new therapeutic drugs and it has administered 60,000 shots of a trial vaccine in the DRC and Uganda out of a stockpile of 300,000 doses provided by the pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Yet the region is “traumatized” by decades of conflict between rebel groups and government forces, Dr. Salama said, so the population is mistrustful of authorities who attempt to intervene advocating medical treatment and safer burial practices.

A messy presidential election last month was temporarily suspended in Ebola-affected areas and resulted in a contested outcome only made the situation worse.

“This overlap between violence and security incidents and community distrust make our jobs extremely difficult to do,” Dr. Salama said.

The nation’s Constitutional Court on Sunday refused a request by Martin Fayulu, the runner-up in the disputed official vote tally, for a recount, saying President-elect Felix Tshisekedi received the largest share of the vote, according to The Associated Press. But Mr. Tshisekedi’s planned inauguration Tuesday was postponed at least until Thursday amid calls from regional countries that the result be suspended.

Police on Monday dispersed a crowd of Fayulu supporters waiting to hear from their candidate in the capital city of Kinshasa, and the political instability is having a direct impact on the Ebola fight.

A treatment center in Beni was attacked on the cusp of the election weeks ago, and ongoing protests is making life more difficult in Katwa, which saw a recent spike in cases.

Dr. Salama said bringing the epidemic under control will likely last until May, “at a minimum.”

Already the epidemic has resulted in 689 cases and more than 420 deaths, having inflicted more damage than any other Ebola outbreak after the West African epidemic that killed more than 11,000 earlier this decade.

The latest, 21-day cluster of cases show the movement of the disease to new population centers. While Beni only recorded four cases, Katwa to the south recorded 34 and nearby Butembo recorded 11.

Dr. Salama said four cases were reported in recent days in Kayna, which is halfway from Butembo to Goma.

The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders said it has expanded its treatment center in Butembo and set up a new one in Katwa.

It has tried to make its new center as welcoming as possible — large windows, more family visits — to gain the trust of the local community.

“With Ebola, treatment centers alone are not enough. Connecting with the communities and building mutual trust is key to get the outbreak under control,” said Roberto Wright, an anthropologist with the doctors’ group in Katwa. “We need to increase our efforts to engage the population as active participants in the fight against the outbreak.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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