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Ebola patients stranded by violence in Democratic Republic of Congo

An Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is growing, the World Health Organization said Friday, having killed 436 of more than 700 infected. This region also volatile, where health workers are attacked and armed conflict is preventing emergency responses for treatment. International Rescue Committee’s Stacey Mearns joins Hari Sreenivasan for more.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On Friday, the World Health Organization released a new report showing that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is growing. Stacey Mearns, the Ebola Response Program Director for the International Rescue Committee joins us now via Skype from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Thanks for being with us. So what is it about this particular part of this outbreak? I mean this has been going on since August, that is of concern to you now.

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    I think the situation on the ground remains complex and very challenging. We're currently at 733 cases with 446 deaths. And the biggest challenge is that this outbreak is occurring in what is a very dynamic and volatile security situation. Over the last month in particular, we've seeing election related unrest and protests, we've seen attacks on health facilities and the Ebola response and we've seen ongoing active conflict and attacks from armed rebel groups. This has directly impacted the response.

    Over the Christmas period, several agencies including the IRC had to temporarily suspend programming and evacuate staff. Across the response, we had a 3 to 4 day complete shutdown of response activities and we're currently now seeing the effect of that. So particular in the last two weeks we're seeing an increase in case numbers. Over the past week, we've recorded the biggest number of cases on a daily basis. And we've also seen increasing geographic spread of the outbreak.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So this is just because health workers are not able to get in there and either treat the people already infected or vaccinate anyone? Is that right?

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    Yeah. It's a two way impact and essentially the insecurity affects movement. So in one direction, it affects the movement of those who have Ebola or those who've come in contact with Ebola from actually seeking help and reaching health facilities in Ebola treatment units. And on the other side it's also affecting response workers, so that could be surveillance teams, safe burial teams or vaccination teams. The insecurity is affecting movement for people to get to where they need to be to rapidly do what they need to do to contain the outbreak.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is the vaccine working?

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    The vaccine is undoubtedly having a major impact. Here so far just over 65,000 people have received the vaccine. If we didn't have the vaccine at play here we would be looking at case numbers of double, triple of what we're seeing currently. So the vaccine is certainly playing a big impact here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, you just had a new president sworn in, any movement from the government on how they plan to address this?

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    I mean, the governments have been very involved in the outbreak since the beginning. They've shown great leadership and coordination on the ground here. Currently, the government with the U.N. agencies, with WHO, with partners on the ground are currently revising and updating the plan and strategy for the response.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are you optimistic that this is going to be something that you can get your arms around?

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    I think the situation here is very worrying. I don't think that we've seen the height of this outbreak yet. So I think things are likely to get worse before they get better. I think there is, you know, good reason to be optimistic. We have had positive signs and positive containment you know, throughout the outbreak. The original epicenter of the outbreak in Mangina, the next epicenter of Beni, the situation has been controlled in those areas. But what we've just seen is sort of further evolution of the outbreak. So whilst things are likely to get worse before they get better and the road to ending this outbreak is going to be a long one, I still feel optimistic that we will get there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Dr. Stacey Mearns joining us via skype audio. The Ebola Response Program Director for the International Rescue Committee, thanks so much.

  • STACEY MEARNS:

    Thank you.

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