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OPINION: How to tackle Ebola in DRC? Focus on the community

by Agoustou Gomis | World Vision - Africa Regional Office
Thursday, 23 May 2019 15:13 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Faith leaders, local radio, and youth groups are all crucial structures to help drive home messages about identifying symptoms, staying safe when caring for sick people, and where to get help

Dr. Agoustou Gomis, Ebola Virus Disease Project Coordinator, World Vision DRC

As the Ebola outbreak in DRC shows no signs of relenting, and the security situation remains unpredictable, the UN announced on Thursday that it is strengthening its response to the deadly virus.

More than 100 new cases were confirmed last week, bringing the total number of confirmed and probable cases to 1,866, with identification and treatment still hampered by sporadic fighting. Following this escalation, the UN has appointed its DRC peacekeeping deputy chief, David Gressly, to a new Ebola chief role with a focus on security and other issues restricting the efforts to contain the outbreak.

Conflict in the DRC over the last year has doubled the number of people needing humanitarian assistance to 13 million, nearly six million of them children. Ebola is compounding those children’s misery. This is the second largest outbreak in history, and the first where interventions have been restricted by direct attacks on treatment centres by people who fear the facilities are spreading, rather than containing, the epidemic. We have even seen horrific murders of health care workers, who are already putting their lives on the line.

Gressly’s role is much needed but we also need a strategic shift in the way the world responds to the current outbreak. Families are struggling through a crisis on top of a crisis, bearing the brunt of the twin stresses of a terrifying disease and barely-checked violence. They must be at the heart of a locally-led response, working with trusted individuals in the community – and building this approach should form a central part of Gressly’s strategy. It will take time and investment, but will enable responders to equip communities better, and work alongside them to tackle the outbreak.

Faith leaders, local radio, youth groups and women’s associations are all crucial structures to help drive home messages about identifying symptoms, staying safe when caring for sick people, and where to get help. A programme World Vision piloted during the West Africa epidemic is now working here in the DRC, too. We train people in awareness raising, who have themselves now launched community action teams to de-mystify Ebola, prevent stigmatisation of the sick, and encourage people to seek medical help early. Time and time again, it’s been proven that a locally-led response is most effective.

Alarmingly, of 1,241 deaths so far, more than two-thirds have occurred in people’s homes or in non-specialist health centres. This makes community information campaigns vital, and shows the necessity of simple hygiene measures.

We remain concerned about high-risk areas which do not yet have incidences of the disease – more needs to be done to inform and prepared communities in advance, before a case arrives. We know that this helps to reduce the risk of community denial, rejection of people who need medical care, and further violence towards Ebola victims – and those who help them.

Just as this epidemic has highlighted other problems in the DRC, it also offers those of us working on the ground – UN and NGOs alike – solutions. Engaging the community, working with faith leaders and other peer groups, reinforcing health systems, and getting everybody to work together on a common cause – these are powerful incentives to keep focused on seeing an end to Ebola in the DRC.