The Ebola situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) appears to be getting worse after the country’s health ministry disclosed that it had recorded more than 2,000 cases, with most of those cases fatal.

The outbreak, which started in the eastern part of the country ten months ago (last August) and reached 1,000 cases in March, took less than three more months to reach 2,000. Also, over 1,300 people have died, figures from the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) show.

“Since the start of the epidemic, the total number of cases stands at 2,008, of which 1,914 have been confirmed [by lab test] while 94 are probable … In all, there have been 1,346 deaths (1,252 confirmed and 94 probable) and 539 people have recovered,” the ministry said in an update.

The Ebola outbreak in eastern DRC is the second-worst in history, after an epidemic that struck three African countries and killed over 11,300 between 2014-2016. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the situation as “one of the most complex health emergencies any of us have ever faced” last month. “Unless we unite to end this outbreak, we run the very real risk that it will become more widespread, more expensive and more aggressive,” Ghebreyesus said.

Hostility and insecurity challenges

Since the break out of the disease, health workers have immunised over 100,000 people to date as part of a United Nations (UN) and government-backed vaccination programme to contain the spread of the virus. However, efforts to tackle the crisis have been hampered by a duo of challenges.

Health workers are faced with widespread community distrust over the epidemic. The hostility from the local communities stems from their belief that the Ebola virus is a conspiracy made up by aid agencies and the government for the financial gain of local elites or to further destabilise the area.

“The current response to tackle Ebola isn’t working,” Oxfam’s Country Director, Corinne N’Daw, in Congo, told Reuters. “No matter how effective treatment is, if people don’t trust or understand it, they will not use it.”

Further complicating the efforts of health workers and the UN response to the crisis are attacks by militia and rebel groups on treatment centres. According to the WHO, more than 100 attacks on treatment centres and health workers have been recorded since the beginning of the year. A mob also reportedly killed an Ebola health worker and looted a clinic in one of the affected villages earlier this month.

On Monday night, there was an assault on civilians in an Ebola-stricken region of the DRC which according to reports was carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). The rebel group thought to be linked to ISIL frequently launches attacks on civilians, but has recently been responsible for attacks on UN peacekeepers in the fight against Ebola.

The 2,000 figure is a “sad and frustrating milestone … the insecurity is holding us back. Every time there is an incident … we are not able to provide services and go into communities. We are not able to vaccinate, not able to treat those who are ill, we are not able to follow up on those who may have been exposed to the virus,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic revealed.

Despite these challenges and the surge in cases recorded, the health ministry advised that it was important to consider the overall perspective on the situation. “In recent weeks, the trend has been positive, although vigilance is still necessary,” the ministry explained, adding that there have been fewer attacks on Ebola teams by armed groups, which means health workers have “recovered some of the lost time to contain the spread of the epidemic.” 

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