KINSHASA, Congo — Armed assailants again attacked an Ebola treatment center in the heart of eastern Congo’s deadly outbreak on Saturday, with one police officer killed and health workers injured.
The early-morning attack in Butembo came less than a week after the treatment center reopened following an attack last month, which forced aid group Doctors Without Borders to suspend its operations in the city. Security forces repelled Saturday’s attackers, one of whom was wounded, Butembo Mayor Sylvain Kanyamanda said.
The latest attack occurred hours before the World Health Organization director-general visited the center, which remains open. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus encouraged health workers to continue their fight against the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which is spreading in a region compared to a war zone.
“It breaks my heart to think of the health workers injured and police officer who died in today’s attack,” Tedros said. WHO has requested and received further support from United Nations and local police forces to protect treatment centers, he said. He blamed the attack on “elements who are exploiting the desperation of the situation for their own purposes.”
Dozens of armed groups are active in eastern Congo, though some have allowed health workers access to administer Ebola vaccines and track contacts of infected people after delicate negotiations.
In addition, some residents wary of outsiders after years of deadly rebel attacks have shown hostility to health workers in a region that is facing its first Ebola outbreak. Misunderstandings have been high, especially over the need to conduct safe burials, a highly sensitive issue. Ebola is spread via bodily fluids of those infected, including the dead.
On Thursday, the Doctors Without Borders president warned that Ebola containment efforts face a “climate of deepening community mistrust” seven months after the outbreak was declared, and the use of security forces complicates efforts. People are still reluctant to bring the sick to treatment centers, Joanne Liu said.
"Ebola is worsening despite medical progress because trust is breaking down."
— MSF International (@MSF) March 9, 2019
To conquer Ebola, “we must strike a delicate balance between providing accessible care, maintaining the neutrality of the response and protecting patients and staff from attacks by armed groups,” Tedros said in a Twitter post on Saturday. “We are committed to ending the outbreak and we will not leave until we do.”
Another Ebola treatment center in Katwa was attacked late last month, with one person killed. Doctors Without Borders also has suspended its operations there. The attacks enormously disrupted containment efforts, Congo’s health ministry said, warning that a “significant upsurge” in new Ebola cases could follow.
For those trying to contain the outbreak, the attacks are occurring in the worst possible locations. Butembo and Katwa made up more than 86 percent of new confirmed cases over the past three weeks, the health ministry said Monday.
The ministry, which on Sunday tweeted a photo of smiling workers reopening the Butembo treatment center, says 853 Ebola cases have been confirmed since this outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, including 578 deaths.
The outbreak is second to the one in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people during 2014-2016.
This time, dramatic advances have been seen. More than 86,000 people have received an experimental Ebola vaccine, a clinical trial of experimental treatments is under way and new treatment facilities allow some Ebola patients to be within sight and sound of family members.
Still, millions of people have been screened at transit points in the densely populated region as health workers try to keep Ebola from spreading into neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.