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Ebola outbreak grows in Congo after health clinic attacks

More than 1,000 people have died from an Ebola outbreak that began in August in Democratic Republic of Congo. The country's government is working with international aid organizations to contain the deadly disease but their efforts have been challenged by insecurity, including attacks on health clinics. Nadia Drake, a contributing writer for National Geographic, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    More than a thousand people have now died in the most recent outbreak of Ebola. It began last August in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The disease is spreading in part because of violent attacks on health clinics and suspicions about vaccines. National Geographic recently published a new article and photographs about the Congo outbreak in connection with its upcoming TV series 'The Hot Zone.' Based on the bestselling book about Ebola's first appearance in the U.S. in 1989 at a research facility near Washington D.C.

    I recently spoke with National Geographic contributing writer Nadia Drake via Skype from Charlottesville, Virginia about her reporting and the outlook for containing this deadly disease.

  • Nadia Drake:

    It is only occurring in one country and hasn't jumped the border yet. But the region that it's occurring in is basically an active conflict zone so there's a lot of political turmoil. There are militias that are running around that are attacking Ebola treatment centers and every time an Ebola treatment center is attacked, it sets back the response effort. And so the teams that are in the region are finding it very, very difficult to follow up with the victims of Ebola virus disease to find out who they might have come into contact with to efficiently deploy the vaccine.

    There's a lot of mistrust among people in the communities there who don't really want outsiders coming in. Basically the decades of civil unrest there making this outbreak persist.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So is it a particular region that's got more of the people infected? And are they spreading from that region to other places? Is it the cities? Is it the rural areas? Where is the problem the worst?

  • Nadia Drake:

    So this is in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo in North Kivu and in three provinces. And so far the outbreak seems to be confined to that northeastern area. But that is actually very heavily populated area. There is a lot of movement of people between cities. We see lots of refugees moving between cities and so even though there's a lot of movement within that region it still hasn't spread beyond there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are people coming in knowing that they have Ebola or do they think they have something else?

  • Nadia Drake:

    So Ebola in its early stages is actually quite difficult to differentiate. It looks a lot like malaria, which is endemic in the region. And the only places that you can diagnose Ebola right now are in specialized Ebola treatment centers. And the way that they do that is by actually looking for viral particles in the blood. And it takes a couple of days for virus levels to be detectable.

    And so if somebody has a fever and they show up in a clinic — this area has tons and tons of health care providers ranging from traditional healers to pharmacies to actual health clinics. So people might be traveling between multiple clinics looking to see what's wrong with them and if they have Ebola in that process they're going to be spreading the disease because they're contagious.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So this is through either what bodily fluids or through people's eyes and they're touching people without gloves because they don't think they have Ebola in the first place?

  • Nadia Drake:

    Right, yeah. Yes. The virus needs some kind of mucous membrane or a break in the skin to be transmitted. Ebola is actually, it's a very deadly disease but it's not the most infectious. It's not extremely easy to transmit. It does require close contact with bodily fluids.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So how were these health agencies say, Doctors Without Borders, other ones trying to deal with this? Because they obviously don't want to put their own people in harm's way if they're going to set up a clinic and the clinics going to get burned down?

  • Nadia Drake:

    Right. So Doctors Without Borders actually has had two centers that have been repeatedly attacked. And I think based on what I heard a couple of weeks ago they put personnel back from those areas.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And so what's the strategy here? How does the local government or other international health agencies how do they think about figuring out how to put this you know, how to contain this?

  • Nadia Drake:

    Right now the government, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the Ministry of Health is deploying teams in the region who are working with the World Health Organization and other NGOs who are there to try and set up treatment centers, to run treatment centers, to do the contact tracing. That allows teams to deploy a vaccine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Nadia Drake thanks so much for joining us.

  • Nadia Drake:

    You're welcome.

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