Thursday January 23, 2020

Congo Ebola Outbreak: Too Many People Losing their Lives at Home

Health teams are now going door-to-door with megaphones trying to get the message out

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An Ebola treatment center is seen next to the hospital in Beni, Congo, July 13, 2019. VOA

Two-month-old Lahya Kathembo became an orphan in a day. Her mother succumbed to Ebola on a Saturday morning. By sunset her father was dead, too.

They had been sick for more than a week before health workers finally persuaded them to seek treatment, neighbors said. They believed their illness was the work of people jealous about their newborn daughter, a community organizer said, and sought the guidance of a traditional spiritual healer.

The Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo is ravaging Beni, a sprawling city of some 600,000, in large part because so many of the sick are choosing to stay at home. In doing so, they unknowingly infect caregivers and those who mourn them.

“People are waiting until the last minute to bring their family members and when they do it’s complicated for us,” says Mathieu Kanyama, head of health promotion at the Ebola treatment center in Beni run by the Alliance for International Medical Action, or ALIMA. “Here there are doctors, not magicians.”

Nearly one year into the outbreak which has killed more than 1,700 and was declared a global health emergency this month, a rise in community deaths is fueling a resurgence of Ebola in Beni. During a two-week period in July alone, 30 people died at home.

Health teams are now going door-to-door with megaphones trying to get the message out. “Behind every person who has died there is someone developing a fever,” Dr. Gaston Tshapenda, who heads the Ebola response in Beni for Congo’s health ministry, told his teams.

Ebola, Congo, Uganda
People coming from Congo have their temperature measured to screen for symptoms of Ebola, at the Mpondwe border crossing with Congo, in western Uganda, June 14, 2019. VOA

Fear of treatment centers

Many people still don’t believe Ebola is real, health experts say, which stymies efforts to control the disease’s spread.

Ebola symptoms are also similar to common killers like malaria and typhoid, so those afraid of going to a treatment center often try to self-medicate at home with paracetamol to reduce fever. But Ebola, unlike those other illnesses, requires the patient to be kept in isolation and away from the comfort of family.

Dr. Maurice Kakule, who became one of this outbreak’s first Ebola patients after he treated a sick woman at his clinic, is now trying to make it easier for those who are ill to get help in and around Beni, near the border with Uganda.

He and other survivors, who are now immune to the disease, run a motorcycle taxi ambulance. After receiving a phone call for help they go to homes, reassure the sick and take them for medical care without infecting others. People’s most common fear is that they will only leave an Ebola treatment center in a body bag, Kakule says.

“Some have heard of the problem of Ebola but there have been no survivors in their family,” he said. “Since they had relatives die at a treatment center, they think people are killed there and that’s why they categorically refuse to go.”

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“People are waiting until the last minute to bring their family members and when they do it’s complicated for us,” says Mathieu Kanyama. VOA

Humanizing care

They fear, too, that they will die alone, surrounded only by health care personnel covered in protective gear from head to toe.

To try to humanize the care of patients in isolation, ALIMA’s Ebola treatment center in Beni places some patients in their own transparent room called a “CUBE,” where they can see visitors from their beds. Others share a room with one other patient and a glass window where loved ones can gather.

While there is no licensed treatment for Ebola, patients in eastern Congo are able to take part in clinical trials. That’s a welcome change from the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa when many patients entered Ebola centers never to come out alive again. More than 11,000 people died. Still, the measures needed to keep Ebola from spreading remain difficult for many people to accept.

“We cannot be oblivious to the fact that when you’re sick with Ebola you’re put somewhere away from your family, with a 50% chance of dying alone from your loved ones,” said Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, which is helping to fight the outbreak. “I don’t blame people for not finding this attractive, despite the fact that we have a clinical trial going on.”

The day after the deaths of baby Lahya’s parents, a morgue team in protective clothing carried their carefully encased bodies to a truck for a funeral procession to a Muslim cemetery on the edge of town.

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FILE – Mwamini Kahindo, an Ebola survivor working as a caregiver to babies who are confirmed Ebola cases, holds an infant outside the red zone at the Ebola treatment center in Butembo, DRC, March 25, 2019. VOA

In the background was the sound of workers hammering away as they built more space at the nearby treatment center to accommodate the growing caseload.

Lahya developed a fever but has tested negative for Ebola. The infant with round cheeks and gold earrings is in an orphanage for now, while her 3-year-old sister is being cared for by neighbors who hope to raise them both.

But the sisters will have to wait a bit longer to be reunited — their adoptive father and former nanny both have tested positive for Ebola and are being treated.

ALSO READ: Tobacco Epidemic: WHO Urges Nations to Implement Anti-Tobacco Measures

‘I lost my entire family’

The fateful decision to avoid treatment centers haunts survivors like Asifiwe Kavira, 24, who fell ill with Ebola along with eight of her relatives. Health teams came to the house in Butembo, trying to persuade them to seek treatment. Most of the family, though, said they wanted to treat their fevers at home. After three days of negotiations, Kavira finally agreed to seek help, believing she was on the brink of death.

She would be the only one to survive. Her mother, grandmother, brother and four other relatives all died at home. An older sister joined her at the treatment center, but medical care came too late. “I tell people now that Ebola exists,” Kavira says, “because that is how I lost my entire family.” (VOA)

Next Story

Africa Aims at Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger in 2020

Africa Starts 2020 Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger

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Africa Health
A health worker fills a syringe with Ebola vaccine before injecting it to a patient, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa. VOA

A tragic airline crash with far-reaching consequences, cataclysmic cyclones that may be a harbinger of the future, the death of an African icon and a new leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize. These African stories captured the world’s attention in 2019, and look to influence events on the continent in 2020.

The battles against extremist violence and Ebola will also continue to be major campaigns in Africa in the coming year.

The crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa in March killed all 157 passengers and crew. The disaster, which claimed the lives of a large number of U.N. officials, involved a Boeing 737 Max jet and came just five months after a similar crash in Indonesia of the same aircraft.

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Foreign investigators examine wreckage at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, south of Addis Ababa, Africa. VOA

Boeing was inundated with questions about the safety of its plane. After initially claiming that it was safe, the company was forced to ground the plane after many countries refused to let it fly in their airspace. In December Boeing announced that it would suspend production of the jet.

The air crash was a trial for Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who later in the year won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for achieving peace with neighboring Eritrea. But Abiy is challenged by often violent ethnic rivalries in his country and elections set for May 2020 will be crucial, analysts say.

Cyclone Idai ripped into Mozambique in March, killing more than 1,300 people, making it “one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere,” according to the U.N. A month later Cyclone Kenneth roared into northern Mozambique, killing more than 50 people.

This was the first time in recorded history that Mozambique had two major cyclones, prompting some to worry that the country, with a 1,000-mile Indian Ocean coastline, may be prone to more storms as a result of climate change.

Africa extremism
A general view shows the scene of a car bomb explosion at a checkpoint in Mogadishu, Somalia, Africa. VOA

Across Mozambique more than 2.5 million people remain in urgent need of assistance, according to the U.N. Mozambique also starts 2020 troubled by ongoing attacks on vehicles in the country’s central area and by Islamic extremist attacks in the country’s north.

Extremist violence continues to vex Africa from the east to the west.

2019 began with extremist violence. In Kenya in January, insurgents launched an assault on a luxury hotel and shopping complex in Nairobi that killed at least 14 people.

The year came to an end with extremist attacks across the continent.

A bomb in Somalia killed 78 people, including many university students, in the capital, Mogadishu, on Dec. 28, the deadliest attack in years. Somalia’s al-Shabab, allied to al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the bombing.

In Nigeria extremists linked to the Islamic State group circulated a video showing 11 hostages, most of them Christians, being executed. They were thought to be killed on Christmas Day. The extremist group, which calls itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, said the captives were executed as revenge for the killing of Islamic State group leaders in Iraq and Syria in October.

In northern Burkina Faso, jihadists killed 35 civilians, most of them women, and ensuing clashes with security forces left 80 jihadists dead, the West African nation’s president announced Dec. 24. That attack came weeks after an attack on a convoy carrying employees of a Canadian mining company in which at least 37 civilians were killed in the country’s east. Both attacks were by groups numbering close to 100, indicating the presence of relatively large, well-organized extremist groups.

“The startling deterioration of the security situation in Burkina Faso has been a major development in 2019,” said Alex Vines, director of the Africa program at Chatham House, the British think tank. “There’s been a dramatic spike in extremist attacks.”

Frequent attacks in Burkina Faso’s north and east already have displaced more than a half million people, according to the United Nations. While Burkina Faso’s military has received training from both former colonizer France and the United States, it starts 2020 with little progress in halting the surge in extremist violence.

President of South Africa
President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during a state funeral of Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, at the national sports stadium in Harare, Zimbabwe. VOA

Congo starts the year waging a different kind of war, a campaign against Ebola, which has killed more than 2,200 people since August 2018. The medical effort to control the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history has been severely hampered since the start by the presence of several armed groups in eastern Congo, the epicenter of the epidemic. It was hoped that new vaccines would help control the outbreak more quickly, but the violence has hampered those efforts.

Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi, elected in 2019, said in November that he was optimistic that the Ebola outbreak would be ended before 2020, but the epidemic continues throughout eastern Congo.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, re-elected in 2019, said in a New Year’s statement that the need to boost his country’s ailing economy and create jobs is his biggest challenge for 2020. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, also re-elected, has said that his government has controlled the rebellion by Boko Haram extremists, but violence continues to plague the country’s northeast.

Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, died at age 95 in September. Mugabe, the guerrilla leader who fought to end white-minority rule in Rhodesia and then ruled independent Zimbabwe from 1980 until 2017, left a mixed legacy of liberation, repression and economic ruin.

Also Read- HPV Vaccinations may Reduce Cervical Cancer Rate in Kenya

Zimbabwe begins the new year with severe economic problems including inflation estimated at more than 300% and widespread hunger. In an emergency appeal at the end of December, the U.N.’s World Food Program said that even though the southern African country had suffered a drought, Zimbabwe’s food shortages are a ‘man-made” disaster, laying the blame squarely with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

The once-prosperous country staggered to 2020 with power shortages lasting up to 19 hours per day and large parts of the capital, Harare, a city of some 2 million people, going without running water. (VOA)