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Health officials in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are working to end the latest Ebola outbreak that began in early August. The new cluster of cases has emerged in an area with active fighting between the government and more than 100 armed groups, hampering efforts to contain the virus. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Benedict Moran and video journalist Jorgen Samso report.
In this clinic in the city of Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, doctors are treating a new patient. It's a 13-year-old girl who recently tested positive for Ebola virus disease. Ebola can cause headaches, fever, and severe hemorrhaging. Without treatment, it's nearly always fatal. So time is of the essence.
I'm in the process of helping my colleague in the cube regulate the patient's IV drip. We are working together. I can help from the outside.
Nearby are more patients. Janine in the white shirt and her two sisters have been here for three weeks. Seven members of their family are already dead.
When mother died of Ebola we didn't know what it was. We thought she was poisoned. My uncle died. My cousin. My aunt. My mom. My own brother, and my own sister. They all died.
Treating Janine and other Ebola patients is difficult. They need to be closely monitored. Doctors and nurses need to be able to help without putting themselves at risk.
Before this outbreak, most hospitals in this region didn't have facilities that were capable of treating Ebola patients. This year, health workers have introduced a new tool. They call it the cube.
Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids. And the cube allows additional health workers to treat patients from the outside without wearing cumbersome protective gear.
DR OUMMANI ROUAFI:
Before, it would take 15 minutes to be able to enter the room. Now, in a couple minutes we can be helping a patient.
There are medical personnel here from all over: Congolese physicians, international humanitarian organizations, the World Health Organization and others. Just a couple years ago, they could give no medicines for Ebola. This year they are using new experimental drugs. Now, patients can receive donated medicine within hours of being admitted. Because of the crisis, a Congolese and international panel of experts approved the use of the new drugs before they ordinarily would. The W.H.O. Call this a paradigm shift.
On one hand, you are incredibly nervous because not many people were given these drugs before and not many people have received them. But on the other hand, there is a sense of excitement and a sense of hope because for the first time we have something that we can use to directly fight against the virus.
There's also a new vaccine. A 2015 field trial in West Africa found the vaccine to be quote "effective." So though it, too, isn't yet fully approved by global health authorities, more than 15-thousand people in this region have been vaccinated on compassionate grounds. The goal is to forestall an epidemic, one that could sweep the region and beyond.
When a patient tests positive for Ebola one of the first things health workers do is to track down everyone in their immediate environment, that includes family and friends. People who may have been in touch with the sick person and who may be infected themselves. They are brought here to the central hospital, given a consultation as well as a vaccination.
Health workers say it's crucial to make sure no one slips through the cracks. An Ebola response team made up of local and international health workers has put up checkpoints on major roads entering Beni. They take the temperatures of all going in and out of the city. They also make sure everyone washes their hands. But this outbreak has other challenges. This part of the Congo is an active conflict zone. Well over 100 armed groups are fighting for influence. Violence has forced nearly a million people from their homes. And Ebola has spread to neighborhoods like this one, near Beni, where armed groups regularly operate.
Less than a kilometer behind me, in that forest, armed groups are fighting against the central government. And during periods of intense fighting, this area can be a no-go zone for health workers.
While we were reporting from Beni, the perfect storm. This is the sound of anti-government fighters attacking Beni on the night of September 21. They were stopped just a half a mile from the center of town. 21 People were killed, most of them civilians. As their bodies were brought to the morgue, civilian activists took their frustration to the streets, calling for the government and the international community to do more to stop the killings.
We have called for a two-day strike in Beni, to demand that the central government does something about what's happening here. People are dying and they leave us here like we're animals. Just like the international community has deployed here to fight Ebola, they need to also fight to stop the massacres.
Because of the unrest, vaccinations and the crucial tracking of suspected Ebola cases were called off. Streets usually crowded with white government and world health organization vehicles were empty. UN Peacekeepers patrolled the streets.
After last night's attack, international health workers and Congolese doctors have been told to stay inside. Patients in this hospital's Ebola ward are still receiving treatment. But all activities outside have been put on hold.
Dr N'djoloko Tambwe is in charge of the Congolese Government Ebola response.
BATHÉ N’DJOLOKO TAMBWE:
After a night like last night, health workers are exhausted, since there were shots fired all night. There are people who have never experienced that before. So you need to give them moral support so they can get back to work.
He tells me that after years of fighting and neglect, mistrust of local and international institutions and authority runs deep.
The Congolese government is criticized for not doing enough to make it safe. The UN is judged to be complicit in the massacres here, and for not protecting the population except for a few battalions. And NGOs, people think they are here just to make money.
Then, there's politics. The Congo is set to hold Presidential elections in December. That adds yet another degree of unpredictability. Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the country has never known a peaceful transfer of power. And some populist politicians have spread conspiracy theories about the Ebola virus. This audio clip was broadcast over the radio.
CRISPIN MBINDULE MITONDO:
We want the Minister of Health to tell us the real origins of [this] Ebola [outbreak]. As long as we're not told its real origin, we'll [have no choice but to] believe that it was manufactured in a laboratory and then spread to the population of Beni. What have we done [to deserve this]? We're killed everyday.
In an atmosphere of violence, mistrust, and misinformation, some Ebola patients have refused treatment. Red cross volunteers have even been attacked by community members. It all makes the already huge task of eliminating Ebola even more difficult. Still, health authorities persevere, promoting, better communication and education. Nurses from a local union are spreading a message: ebola kills.
We want to tell people here that Ebola exists, so they can protect themselves.
Posters are plastered across the city. And inside classrooms, children are given lessons on what's true and what's false. But they can't take the message everywhere they'd like to. With fighting just outside Beni, at times many areas are still too dangerous for health workers to access. So part of the response means training health workers from the dangerous areas, so that even if they're on their own, they'll be ready. Here the International Rescue Committee is teaching one nurse how to properly wear protective gear.
DR. RAPHAEL OKUM:
Local health workers are the first line of defense. All of the sick people who arrive, they come here first. So if these nurses don't know how to protect themselves, they'll be exposed to the disease. And once they are exposed, there's a strong chance of being infected, and of dying of Ebola.
Back at the ebola treatment center in Beni's Central Hospital, there's a moment of happiness. Today doctors have the results of Janine's latest blood test. It shows there's no more Ebola. After 22 days near death, she's cured. Now, she can go home.
I'm going to tell others how terrible this disease is and encourage them to come receive care and get cured.
Her two sisters will stay behind. Janine says she plans on returning here every day until they too are cured.
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