Ebola vaccination campaigns begin in Congo as many remain unfazed
iStock/Thinkstock(KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo) — As a vaccination campaign to prevent the spread of Ebola has started today in the Democratic Republic of Congo, most of the country is continuing with its daily lives, unafraid.
The latest outbreak of the deadly, extremely contagious virus was declared in the northwestern province of Equateur, more than 300 miles away from the capital.
“We’re used to it,” Raymond Wabeno, 51, a driver in the capitol city of Kinshasa told ABC News. This is the fourth outbreak in Equateur province and the ninth outbreak in the DRC, where the virus was first discovered in 1976.
“Most people know about Ebola, but they don’t understand the gravity of the virus or how quickly it can spread,” said Wabeno.
More than 7,500 doses of vaccines were shipped over the weekend to Equateur province, where authorities declared an outbreak in the remote towns of Bikoro, Iboko and in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million people.
At least 51 cases of hemorrhagic fever have been reported, according to figures provided by the Congo’s Ministry of Health. Among those cases, the agency said 28 tested positive for Ebola, including four in Mbandaka.
“The problem is that we don’t know who is contaminated,” said Claude Madiata Matondo, 34, a security guard in Kinshasa. “We are told to wash our hands several times a day, but most people are not used to doing that. We live in insecurity — many of us don’t have unlimited access to water.”
A trip through four different provinces of Congo — Kasai, Tanganyika, South Kivu and North Kivu — revealed how little people seem to be concerned. There, much of the population appears to be unaware of the Ebola outbreak. Across the country, more people are known to die of cholera and malaria.
Since the current outbreak was declared, Oxfam and other international non-profits have set up chlorine dispensers in schools and on the street. Checks at airports are being conducted and the government says it is providing free healthcare in all areas affected.
Millions of dollars from the government and international aid are being poured into the response. Oxfam and Doctors without Borders have launched “outreach teams” in affected communities, to give advice on hygiene precautions in times of outbreaks. Doctors without Borders is also setting up Ebola treatment centers for those who are sick and are currently being treated in hospitals.
Authorities and health partners are preparing for the numbers to increase, mainly because Ebola has an incubation period of about 21 days. However, both the ministry and the World Health Organization have said they believe the outbreak can be managed. While the risk of propagation is considered high at a national level, because the outbreak is near a highly-traveled river, the WHO has not declared the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern.
This time they have a new strategy, as well: Vaccines.
The first batch of vaccines are being given to health workers and second batch will be given to all those who have been in contact with someone who has Ebola. For each confirmed case, the WHO estimates there are between 100 and 150 people who are eligible for vaccination.
Additional doses of vaccines are remaining in Kinshasa for now. One of the worries is that the virus could spread to the city of 12 million people through the river Congo; many boats travel from Mbandaka to Kinshasa on a regular basis.
Launching the vaccination campaign today, the minister of health, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, encouraged citizens to engage fully in the response.
“Adopting all the protective measures against Ebola is an act of patriotism,” he said.
The vaccine, developed by Merck, has been used before, in Guinea and Sierra Leone, and has been judged effective and safe according to the WHO. It is currently free and being administered on a voluntary basis. Side effects are possible and recipients are expected to receive check-ups for up to three months according to the ministry of health.
While the government says they believe the outbreak can be managed, they have said they are preparing for the worst case scenario and 300,000 more doses are in Geneva and ready to be shipped if needed.
Implementing strict controls is a significant challenge. Today, at a port in Kinshasa, a policeman handed out flyers with instructions on how to prevent the spread of Ebola. But while boats arrive daily from Mbandaka, there were no signs of particular controls.
Logistics are also a challenge in the area where many roads are inaccessible, and getting vaccines to affected zones while keeping them stored in subzero temperatures is no easy task.
Convincing people in the country to fight back against Ebola is another task. Many people follow religious and traditional practices, especially during funerals, and those practices are not necessarily aligned with health recommendations.
As a result, authorities and international partners such as Oxfam are conducting awareness campaigns and reportedly going door to door to give advice on hygiene precautions to take in times of outbreaks.
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