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Congo fighting on multiple fronts

Political complications are hindering efforts to contain an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Haitham Nouri , Sunday 9 Sep 2018
Kelle hospital, Congo
An agent of the Congolese Red Cross disinfecting a room of the Kelle hospital, northwestern Congo, where an Ebola fever infected patient lies (Photo: AFP)

For the tenth time in 40 years the Ebola virus has hit the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), shortly after the government announced the successful halting of the outbreak in the west of the country and giving credit to the doctors and nurses who had battled for months to save thousands of lives.

Until late last week, 67 people had died of Ebola since the outbreak of the virus at the beginning of August, the Congolese government said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the outbreak started in May across large areas of the DRC.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed 76 deaths had been registered due to the virus, adding that there were 27 unconfirmed deaths.

The WHO said a doctor had also contracted the virus in the first case since 1 August. A resident of the northern city of Oicha, he was hospitalised after his wife contracted Ebola when she travelled to a nearby town.

Ugandan Islamist militias are holding Oicha under siege, and the fact that more than 100 militia groups are warring over Eastern Congo’s natural resources is making the government’s task in fighting the Ebola virus disease much more difficult.

The WHO considers the road to Oicha to be in a highly insecure “red zone” because of the conflict and the internal displacement of residents, many of whom have crossed to neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.

In June, the DRC government declared an Ebola outbreak in the west of the country. It also approved four experimental treatments in a race to contain the epidemic.

The Congolese Health Ministry has authorised the use of Remdesivir, made by Gilead Sciences in Israel, ZMapp, a monoclonal antibody produced by Mapp Pharmaceuticals in San Diego, Favipiravir, developed in Japan and drugs named REGN3450, REGN3471 and REGN3479 in efforts to treat the disease.

The first patient to receive Remdesivir in the northeast city of Beni last week was said to be “doing well,” according to the ministry.

The DRC is at the top of an international campaign to fight the deadly Ebola virus, which claimed the lives of 11,000 people in West Africa between 2013 and 2016.

The dense forests of the Congo are the original home of Ebola, discovered in 1976 close to a river of the same name.

There was no vaccine to fend off the newest wave of the virus, said Peter Salama, head of the Health Emergencies Programme at the WHO, earlier this month.

He added that the precise type of the virus had not been confirmed, adding that the latest casualties were caused either by the Ebola-Sudan, Ebola-Zaire or Bundibugyo strains.

A vaccine developed for another strain by the pharmaceutical company Merck was given to contacts of the Ebola patients.

“If this [outbreak] turns out to be Ebola-Zaire, then certainly that would bring that option into play. It if doesn’t, we are going to have to look at much more complex options, and we may not have any vaccine options,” Salama told Reuters.

The DRC was a Belgian colony from 1908 and gained its independence in 1960. The country has been in constant turmoil since the three-decades rule of Mobutu Sese Seko (1965-1997), who was ousted by Laurent Kabila, father of the DRC’s current ruler Joseph Kabila.

The DRC was then involved in conflicts with Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad and Sudan that left between three and five million people dead.

Analysts believe the DRC’s present fighting is a result of the country’s wealth of mineral and forest resources and a river capable of generating energy for millions of people.

The security situation and the conflict between Kabila and his opponents have further complicated the mission of the government and international organisations to fight the Ebola virus.

The WHO fears a wider outbreak of Ebola that may be similar to that in West Africa that engulfed countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone after destructive civil wars had rendered them unable to face further catastrophes.

The DRC has been mired in constitutional problems after Kabila attempted to extend his tenure through changes that would have allowed him to run for a new presidential term. After mediation conducted by the Roman Catholic Church, Kabila accepted the two-term restriction, and now he will not be running in the elections slated for 23 December.

Kabila has chosen former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary to be his successor in the upcoming elections. Observers are in two minds about whether Shadary is intended to protect Kabila or whether there will be a repeat of the Russian scenario of Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev changing places as the country’s president and prime minister.

Tensions arose after the independent Congolese National Electoral Commission deemed “ineligible” the announcement of Jean-Pierre Bemba to run for the presidency. Former warlord Bemba is Kabila’s main opponent.

The Commission’s decision was based on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) earlier conviction of Bemba for bribing witnesses. A war crimes conviction against him was overturned in June after he had been charged with committing war crimes in 2002-2003.

Bemba is a former vice-president who turned to the opposition after his militia was stripped of weapons. He was arrested in Brussels in May 2008 on an ICC warrant.

The conflict between Kabila and his opponents is weakening the government’s ability to end the militia fighting in the Eastern Congo and efforts to combat the Ebola virus.

International organisations fear that the displacement of people in the north of the country is helping the virus to spread to neighbouring countries that have weak medical infrastructure and are also mired in civil wars.

Uganda in 2000, 2011 and 2012 and Sudan in 1976, 1979 and 2004 also suffered significant numbers of deaths owing to outbreaks of disease.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Congo fighting on multiple fronts

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