IFRC

Ebola still lurks in Congo’s Cuvette region

Published: 18 March 2003 0:00 CET

Didier Revol in Kellé

The Ebola epidemic in northern Congo has claimed more than 110 lives since January, but seems to have come to an halt in Kellé, one of the biggest villages in the affected area.

“This could be a very deceptive view as we do not know what is going on in the forest where most of the population is still hiding in fear of the disease,” warns Yuma Twahiru, the International Federation’s medical coordinator.

Four weeks ago, when the death toll had reached a peak of nine people a day, the inhabitants of Kellé abandoned the village in droves. Petrified by what they perceived as witchcraft, people left behind them the sick, the elderly, a few officials and a small medical team, backed by 19 Congolese Red Cross volunteers.

With the support and expertise of the International Federation, Médecins sans Frontières-Holland and the World Health Organization staff, Congolese Red Cross volunteers have worked flat out in order to stop the epidemic.

Only one burial took place on Monday, a clear indication that this incredibly stressful work is bearing fruit. Volunteers in Kellé have collected and buried more than 50 bodies. Each time, they have to dress and undress with extreme care - putting on two pairs of gloves sealed with tape, masks, goggles, hats, boots and suits. Each item is put on according to a precise procedure.

A team is made up of five volunteers – four to carry the body from the house or the hospital ward to the grave, and one constantly spraying bleach on his colleagues, the body and everything that could have been in contact with the deceased person.

This Monday, the collection and burial of the latest victim were overseen by a government medical team that had just arrived from Brazzaville. They, like the other partners involved in the operation praise the Red Cross volunteers for their capacities and dedication to the community.

Gérard Eon, the WHO logistician in Kellé, says he has been able to achieve a great deal thanks to the volunteers: “The population is quite reluctant to admit that the epidemic is a natural disease. As family members or neighbours, the volunteers have managed to persuade people to take simple measures such as not touching the sick or washing dead bodies as tradition commands. There is no other way you can stop Ebola.”

Inside their own communities, volunteers and recruited “sentinels” closely monitor the medical state of people who have been or are in contact with sick people, so that new cases can be isolated. People leaving or coming to the neighbourood are also registered.

Information sessions are organised with heads of families and elders to pass on lifesaving messages. The danger linked to the consumption of gorilla meat – believed to be at the origin of the virus’s transmission to man - is always highlighted, but time is needed to change behaviour in this traditional hunting society.

A great deal of work lies ahead for the volunteers. “We are so tired,” one of them says. “All of us have lost a family member or a friend. And even if we are well accepted in Kellé, small villages deep in the forest are frightened - they think we are spreading the disease instead of fighting it. We are starting exploratory missions there but we fear for our security.”

With more resources from the International Federation and its partners arriving in the affected region in the coming days, the volunteers will be able reach remote communities, assess the extent of the epidemic there and continue - despite stress, fatigue and sometimes hostility - to save lives.

Related links:

Republic of Congo: appeal, updates and reports
Congo Ebola outbreak: emergency appeal
WHO fact sheet on Ebola haemorrhagic fever
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