Congo volunteers remain steadfast in eye of Ebola storm

Published: 27 March 2003 0:00 CET

Didier Revol in Kellé

Most are in their late twenties, easily recognised by the green medical shirts and trousers they wear every day. They walk around in white or black rubber boots, an essential part of their protective equipment. Everyone here knows the Congolese Red Cross volunteers.

This 19-strong team, often obscured by their cumbersome protective suits, have been working tirelessly in the village of Kellé, deep in the equatorial forest, since a terrifying outbreak of Ebola haemorrhagic fever erupted in January.

According to the latest World Health Organisation figures, a total of 123 people are known to have been infected in this Cuvette-Ouest region of northern Congo. Of these 113 have died.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the volunteers, the epidemic seems to be coming to an end in Kellé. But there is no room for complacency.

At the peak of the epidemic, most of Kellé’s population fled into the forest, believing they could hide from the deadly virus there. The volunteers chose to remain to care for the sick and elderly left behind. For them, it was the most useful thing to do.

“How could we have gone elsewhere when Ebola was ravaging our community?” says Bienvenu Antsiemi, 33. “We had to come to the aid of our elders. It’s also for them that we are in the Red Cross. We will fight till the end of the epidemic.”

Alexis Abaco, 36, the oldest of a small group taking a break under a mango tree in the hospital yard, lost his father, his mother and a sister.

“I myself cut the transmission chain in my family. I saw my dad had Ebola symptoms, so I said to my mother and sister to leave him alone.” Sweat drops from his forehead. He looks up and adds: “But they were already infected. They passed away shortly afterwards.”

The volunteers consider themselves very fortunate to be all safe and sound. Fabienne Ekere, a 29-year-old who runs the hospital pharmacy, says this owes nothing to luck, but simply to the knowledge they acquired through training provided by the International Federation during the first epidemic last year.

“Our expertise in disaster management and epidemic control saved us from a certain death,” she says. Three nurses in Kellé had a different fate: they lost their lives in the line of duty during the early weeks of the outbreak.

Gildas Mbela, 27, remembers when the first cases were admitted in the hospital. “One person came to see his brother and I told him it was Ebola and he should not touch him.” At one point, the sick relative fell from his bed. “Despite my advice, the guy put his brother back on the bed with his bare hands shouting that it was not Ebola. That’s how many people die here, they refuse to admit reality.”

Volunteers do not want to acknowledge any feeling of fear – feeling afraid, they say, was a luxury they could not afford. There is silence. Then Bienvenu speaks about his first exploratory mission out of Kellé to assess what was the situation in remote villages: “All we could find were empty houses everywhere we stopped. I could not help being scared.”

Today, the situation is barely different. Only 30 per cent of Kellé’s population has come back from the bush. “We do not know what is going on there. People are slowly returning to their dwellings and maybe the epidemic could flare up again.”

Ilitch Ndaye and Romaine Oloba, both 28, live together and have been constantly working with one another. “When I go to the battlefield, I am happy to see my wife by my side,” says Ilitch. “We care for each other and check our protective gear thoroughly”, says Romaine.

They exchange a smile. “We volunteers care for each other, so we are all much closer now,” concludes Alexis.

Related links:

Republic of Congo: appeals, updates and reports
News story: Ebola still lurks in Congo's Cuvette region
WHO fact sheet on Ebola
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