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It's Feared Congo's Ebola Outbreak Will Get Even Worse


The Ebola outbreak spreading through the Democratic Republic of Congo has claimed at least 177 lives. This outbreak is in a part of the country with a lot of conflict, and fears are growing that things could get worse. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has more.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Pierre Rollin is an expert on Ebola with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who recently returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He's been responding to Ebola outbreaks there for more than 20 years. And he says health officials are usually able to get a handle on them quickly.

PIERRE ROLLIN: Three, four months maximum.

AIZENMAN: But that's how long this outbreak has been going on for. And...

ROLLIN: By some aspect, it looks like we just discovered the outbreak. We're are not making any progress. We don't see decreasing number of case. They still have a lot of people that are not detected in time.

AIZENMAN: Response teams are continually finding themselves blocked by armed rebel groups who launch attacks on the government and civilians, by factions within the Congolese military that clash with each other, and by a population that is deeply distrustful of anyone associated with the government, including health workers. Rollin worries about what will happen in late December, when the DRC is set to hold national elections.

ROLLIN: And we have no idea what's going to happen.

AIZENMAN: The fear is the results will be disputed, sparking more violence.

ROLLIN: The terrible scenario is the one in which there are escalated attacks, including targeting of health workers.

AIZENMAN: Stephen Morrison is director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

STEPHEN MORRISON: That could very rapidly trigger a decision to evacuate.

AIZENMAN: He points out that there are currently hundreds of health workers in the outbreak zone, including teams that have given more than 30,000 people a new vaccine.

MORRISON: You take that away, you've removed a dampener. You're going to see a sharp escalation of this outbreak. And your risks of export into the region and beyond go through the ceiling.

AIZENMAN: So he says, you'd think international governments would be crafting an aggressive intervention. And yet...

MORRISON: I see no evidence whatsoever that there's any mobilization of this kind happening.

AIZENMAN: Peter Salama is helping to lead the response by the World Health Organization. He says he shares Morrisons fears, but he's also more optimistic. Salama notes that there's a long-standing U.N. peacekeeping force in the DRC, and he met with them last week.

PETER SALAMA: We discussed how the force could have really acted more than just a reactive force, but a deterrent.

AIZENMAN: Manning checkpoints in key cities in the outbreak zone, for instance. Still, Salama says, even in the best-case scenario, ending this outbreak will take at least six more months. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.