Friday January 17, 2020

Goma, City of Nearly 2 Million People on High Alert after First Transmission of Ebola

"Does Ebola only spread during the day?" he asked ironically as a health official at a different station aimed an infrared thermometer at his temple

Goma, High Alert, Ebola
FILE - Women wash their hands at a hand-washing station set up to help fight Ebola transmissions, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 31, 2019. VOA

Deo Bakulu has been washing his hands every chance he gets since Ebola reached eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s main city of Goma last month.

But the washing station set up by local authorities near his home is only open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Monday through Saturday, and he doesn’t have running water.

“Does Ebola only spread during the day?” he asked ironically as a health official at a different station aimed an infrared thermometer at his temple. “What about on Sundays?”

Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people, is on high alert after the first transmission of the virus within it was confirmed last week. That raised fears the outbreak could spread within the densely-populated city and beyond via its border with Rwanda and the international airport.

Goma, High Alert, Ebola
Deo Bakulu has been washing his hands every chance he gets since Ebola reached eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’s main city of Goma. Pixabay

A gold miner carried the virus from the epicenter of the epidemic, which is several hundred kilometers to the north. He spent a week at home ill with his wife and 10 children before being transferred to hospital, where he died the next day. His wife and daughter then tested positive for the disease.

Goma has had time to get ready for Ebola, given a nearly year-long head start as the disease raged near the cities of Beni and Butembo. Most residents appear to have taken the latest developments in stride, queuing up at the dozens of washing stations set up on sidewalks by the government and private businesses and avoiding shaking hands.

Still, there are shortcomings in the preparations, and medics are encountering some of the same suspicion and hostility they have faced in other outbreak hotspots. In the current epidemic, the virus has killed more than 1,800 people, the second-highest toll ever.

Whether health authorities can successfully apply lessons from those hotspots will go a long way toward determining if they can claim an important victory in Goma or if, instead, the epidemic will hurtle toward the grim record of more than 11,300 deaths registered by West Africa’s 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

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“The system was there before, which is good, so that we’re not starting from scratch,” said Kate White, medical emergency manager for French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). “But it definitely needs to be reinforced and scaled up.”

Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever first discovered in Congo in 1976, spreads through direct contact with body fluids and typically kills roughly half of those it infects, although the mortality rate is closer to two-thirds during the current outbreak because many people are not seeking treatment.


The three cases in Goma set off a scramble to find and vaccinate more than 800 direct and indirect contacts. As of Tuesday, all but five had been vaccinated, said Tresor Amiri, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) vaccination chief in Goma.

Goma, High Alert, Ebola
But the washing station set up by local authorities near his home is only open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., from Monday through Saturday, and he doesn’t have running water. Pixabay

Officials were cautiously optimistic about their chances of containing the virus in Goma. No additional cases have been identified, and the miner’s wife and daughter are recovering.

“We hope they will become the first people cured in Goma,” said Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the head of the Ebola response across Congo, adding their survival would show people that “if you show up for treatment early the chances of survival are relatively good.”

The one previous case in Goma led the WHO to declare the outbreak an international health emergency three weeks ago, but it did not result in any further transmission inside Goma.

Authorities chalk up those successes to elaborate preparations since the outbreak was declared last August.

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Ferdinand Tangenyi, 23, is one of scores of volunteers going door-to-door with illustrated flipbooks warning against handling bloodied clothes or cleaning up vomit. Public service announcements also run repeatedly on the radio.

At the border with Rwanda, crossed by an estimated 45,000 people each day, travelers have their temperatures taken twice on either side. Rwanda briefly closed the border last week but re-opened it as experts warned the move would encourage illicit crossings.

Officials established protocols to handle cases, which they isolated in a special ward at the main hospital. After two months of construction, a 72-bed center built by MSF exclusively for Ebola received its first suspected cases on Friday.


But steep challenges remain. On Saturday, relatives of a boy who had been referred to the MSF center from a local hospital with fever and diarrhea showed up to demand he be released.

One male relative threatened to burn the facility down.

“They were right in Butembo,” he said, referring to how unidentified assailants torched MSF’s treatment center there in February, leading the charity to suspend activities in the city.

“We have had fevers and diarrhea since I was a child,” said one female relative. “Why does a fever now equal Ebola?” An MSF official was eventually able to defuse the situation, and the relatives left.

MSF says it is taking additional steps to reassure the population in Goma and avoid the conspiracy theories that have undermined the response near Beni and Butembo. The Goma center, for example, was built with see-through fencing to pre-empt rumors that anything nefarious is happening inside, said Alexis Touchais, the construction manager.

Francine Mulangala, who goes door-to-door informing people about Ebola in the Goma neighborhood where the gold miner lived, said she was also threatened last Friday by more than a dozen people demanding to see his body.

“If anyone gets sick, we are going to kill you,” she recalled them saying.

The local government has limited ability to deliver crucial services. Only about 10% of the population has access to running water and many rely on communal latrines. The population is also highly mobile, with many traders crossing into Rwanda every day, some outside the official checkpoint.

One driver of a special Ebola ambulance in Goma, who asked not to be named, said drivers had not been paid in six months.

The provincial health ministry, which employs the drivers, could not be reached for comment.

Many residents said they were eager to be vaccinated, but could not be because only those exposed to Ebola patients or their contacts are currently eligible. A decision on whether to deploy a second vaccine that would cover a wider population has been bogged down by wrangling inside the Congolese government.

“The population accepts that Ebola is real,” said Joseph Mumbere, a money changer. “But it is very hard to get the vaccine.” (VOA)

Next Story

Africa Aims at Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger in 2020

Africa Starts 2020 Battling Extremism, Ebola and Hunger

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.

Africa airline
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.

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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)