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How war and misinformation are complicating the DRC’s Ebola battle

An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus has plagued Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly a year and a half, with more than 3,000 people getting sick and 2,000 dead. Major medical advances in prevention and treatment have kept the disease's toll from rising, but ongoing war -- and attacks on medical teams -- have forced the response to a standstill. Special correspondent Monica Villamizar reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the last year-and-a-half, an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus has wracked the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    More than 3,000 people have fallen sick, with more than 2,000 dead. And much of DRC is also a war. At the outbreak's epicenter, attacks against medical teams have left the vital response at a near standstill.

    In partnership with the Global Health Reporting Center, special correspondent Monica Villamizar has the first of two stories on this crisis.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    The outbreak zone is also a war zone, which makes fighting this disease an increasingly difficult battle.

    Stepping off in Butembo, our first stop is the medical tent, hand-washing, foot-washing. And a temperature check.

    I'm fine, but a sudden fever could mean Ebola, a disease that typically kills more than half its victims.

    The first Ebola cases in North Kivu province in Northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo were reported in the summer of 2018. North Kivu is densely populated, and shares heavily trafficked border routes with Uganda and Rwanda.

    The people of DRC have suffered more than two decades of war, with at least hundreds of thousands dead, and millions made refugees in their own country. In North Kivu, the fighting is chaotic, ethnic groups fighting for power and resources and Islamic rebels based in neighboring Uganda.

    Civilians are frequent targets.

    Evert Kets led the U.N. peacekeeping force in North Kivu.

  • Evert Kets:

    There is clearly a security crisis, with attacks from armed groups and the need to protect civilians against those.

    Secondly, there is now the Ebola crisis, which is also a huge challenge from a public health point of view.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    At first, the medical teams fighting Ebola were simply caught in the crossfire, but now they are targets.

    This past year, the World Health Organization counts nearly 400 attacks on treatment units and health workers. The week we arrived, violent street protests forced a lockdown at the U.N. base that is the nerve center of the Ebola response.

    So, for now, we're stuck. And it's not just us. The doctors, the medical detectives, and the vaccination teams are trapped here as well.

    The cafeteria has been turned into a makeshift office for all the medical professionals you see here. They're on lockdown, and that is a problem, they say, because, if they can't go out, they can't monitor who has Ebola and who may be spreading it to other people.

    The next day, we head north.

    We are hearing that the protesters are armed and increasingly hostile towards the U.N. and health workers, so we're being evacuated from Butembo. We're going to Beni, a city that's also on lockdown. And we're being escorted by the police.

    The city of Beni, with a population a quarter-million, has been at the center of the outbreak. The number of cases is down from its peak in the spring, but a deteriorating security situation makes it very hard to stamp out the final viral flames.

    And just as in Butembo, there are growing protests. This protest leader says they're angry that U.N. troops are not doing more to stop the violence, and says the foreign doctors must leave.

  • Lobota Bujangali (through translator):

    Even if the white doctors left, it wouldn't be a problem. We have our own black Congolese doctors who will stop this outbreak.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Making matters worse, few people in Congo trust the official word of the government or the press.

    Many get their news through a toxic mix of distortion, rumor and political agitation, much on social media, some misleading.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Westerners want to kill Africans and sell vaccines for a disease that can be cured. Congolese people are too naive.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And some just flat-out false.

  • Man (through translator):

    At this moment, and during last night, helicopters flew low over the city of Lubero to inject its population with Ebola.

  • Heidi Larson:

    You need 140 characters or something, and that's all you need to spread some of the rumors and perceptions that we're certainly tracking.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Dr. Heidi Larson runs the Vaccine Confidence Project, which studies public attitudes about vaccines all over the world.

    She says the same trouble played out during the largest Ebola outbreak ever, in West Africa five years ago. Almost 30,000 people were infected in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Economies and health systems nearly collapsed.

  • Heidi Larson:

    One of the biggest things we know from rumor spread is that they thrive in times of uncertainty, they thrive in times where people need an answer, are eager for an answer.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    In DRC, the anti-Ebola campaign and the foreign money behind it are seen by many as a way for the powerful to line their pockets.

    The previous health minister was arrested this summer and charged with stealing funds.

    This man works in an orphanage. He came here to get the Ebola vaccination to protect himself, yes, but also to set an example.

  • Man (through translator):

    Orphans overheard that the vaccine is killing people. I want to be a model and encourage them.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    But not everyone is convinced.

    Heading to the U.N. compound, we hear that the gates are blocked by protesters.

    So, moving around here is extremely difficult. It can only be done with an armed escort. We're trying to talk to the spokesperson, see what's going on.

    Hi. This is Monica.

  • Woman:

    Hi, Monica.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    We're like with a bunch of policemen in a pickup truck. And we're following in a blue jeep with tinted windows, right?

    We're coming towards you. If there is like shots or whatever, please open the gate.

    This march is a response to a massacre by Islamic rebels just days earlier, where at least eight people were killed.

    Dr. Margaret Harris is with the World Health Organization.

  • Margaret Harris:

    So what we are seeing now, at the moment is an outpouring of anger, because we have a large peacekeeper contingent, and as far as the people are concerned, they are saying, why are we still suffering?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    How is this affecting the medical response to Ebola?

  • Margaret Harris:

    This is paralyzing all the work that we would normally do to trace all the people who might be infected, to vaccinate all the people who might be at risk, to get the people who at risk to hospital and make sure they get care. All those things, we can't do right now.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    But it doesn't mean a complete standstill.

  • Margaret Harris:

    We have built up huge local teams, and one of the good things about this response is that we have built up the ability to do this work in the local population. And I do know that local community agents are doing their very best to keep this work going on.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    And critical work, it is. One of the five people who died the week we arrived was a motorcycle taxi driver.

    And it's close contact with people, because you are in the motorcycle, and you have to hug someone, or you're going to fall off the motorcycle.

  • Margaret Harris:

    And he also wasn't identified until he died, so that means he was very symptomatic for a lot of days. So you get more and more and more infectious as you approach death.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    It's a race against time to find those contacts, to check on them, and vaccinate, if they're willing.

    And this is just one case of many.

    Some people were telling us that they want foreign health workers to leave, and they can manage the Ebola crisis on their own. Do you think that's true?

  • Margaret Harris:

    I do understand why people are angry. It's more frustration. Every minute gives the virus a chance to get ahead and harm the very people who are out there demonstrating.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Just days after I spoke with Dr. Harris, rebels killed four medical workers in a pair of ambushes.

    Nearly all WHO staff, including the doctors, were evacuated. The other major foreign medical groups pulled staff out as well. Predictably, the virus seized the opening.

    Vaccinations and quick treatment had nearly ended the outbreak. But in early December, the number of confirmed cases started to rise again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Monica Villamizar in Beni, DRC.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to tell these stories. That is first of two from Monica Villamizar.

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