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Congo Grappling With Ebola, Ongoing Violence, Presidential Election


In the Democratic Republic of Congo, health workers are desperately trying to contain the Ebola virus. The last big outbreak in West Africa, which lasted from 2014 to 2016, killed more than 11,000 people. The new one is boiling over in a country that's now got about 100 different armed groups fighting each other. And on top of that, there are presidential elections tomorrow. Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura of The New York Times was just in the Congolese countryside with the medical team and joins us on the line now from San Sebastian, Spain. Welcome to the program.

KIMIKO DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So first, let me ask, you know, how bad is the outbreak? How many people have died? And what did you see as you traveled into the countryside?

DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: At the moment, there have been 600 confirmed and suspected cases according to the ministry of health. You know, the biggest worry is that the virus or the disease is spreading slowly or down south to Goma, which is the regional capital in eastern Congo. If Ebola hits Goma, then there are real fears that the crisis could spread globally because the city sits on the border with Rwanda. And it also has an international airport. And, you know, international organizations like the WHO have already started kind of contingency plans by setting up a treatment center there and vaccinating future frontline workers.

ELLIOTT: Now, as you traveled, you found that these regional militias known as the Mai-Mai were really interfering with the health workers, and the health workers sort of had to negotiate in order to be able to get to people to help them.

DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Well, most of them are against the government, so many of them see even public health workers as the enemy since they work for the government. And every time there are clashes with the police or with government soldiers, you know, health workers have to wait a day or two or even more for them to get into these villages or territories to treat the people.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. You know, what struck me when I was reading your article was that the health officials actually think that this outbreak is made much worse because of these militias. It's almost like they've created the problem.

DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Absolutely. Because every, you know, day or hour of delay, there is the possibility that the virus will spread to someone else and then spreads to the entire village. And that could, you know, spread very dramatically.

ELLIOTT: So tell us a little bit more. You know, there are also experimental treatments. What kind of progress has been made there?

DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Well, a lot has been learned since the outbreak in West Africa. An experimental drug is being tested. There are other treatments. For example, in Beni, we saw plastic so-called biosecure cubes that were developed by a French NGO following the outbreak in West Africa, which makes it easier for doctors to treat patients. And a third of the people who have been infected with Ebola have recovered.

ELLIOTT: Reporter Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura of The New York Times, thank you for speaking with us.

DE FREYTAS-TAMURA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.