The battle against Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo is failing because ordinary people do not trust health workers and an overly militarised response is alienating patients and families, the medical charity MSF said.
Last week Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) suspended medical activities at the focal point of the epidemic after two facilities were torched by unidentified assailants.
MSF’s international president Joanne Liu said the outbreak, which killed 569 people, would not be beaten unless the community trusted authorities and are treated humanely.
“The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic,” Liu told reporters in Geneva.
Ebola responders are increasingly seen as the enemy, with more than 30 attacks and incidents against the Ebola response in the past month alone, she said.
The epidemic is in a region of Congo prey to armed groups and violence where officials see threats through a security lens and use force.
“There is a lot of militarisation of the Ebola response,” she said. “Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s counter-productive. Communities are not the enemy.”
Involvement of security and police forces deepens suspicions Ebola is used as a political tool, she said.
There were signs the outbreak – the second worst ever – was not being brought under control.
Forty percent of deaths were outside medical centres, meaning patients had not sought care, and 35% of new patients were not linked to existing cases, meaning the spread of the disease was not being tracked.
“Ebola still has the upper hand,” Liu said.
Villagers see fleets of vehicles collecting a single sick person and vast amounts of money pouring in. Some were instructed to wash their hands but had no soap.
“They see relatives sprayed with chlorine and wrapped in plastic bags, buried without ceremony. Then they see their possessions burned,” she said.