By Tom Miles
GENEVA (Reuters) – The Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo is now concentrated in two areas and could be stopped by September, but the country also needs help tackling its broader health problems, the head of the World Health Organization said on Thursday.
The outbreak, the second worst in history, is believed to have killed 587 people in a region beset by violence and poverty. A rapid international response has so far stopped the disease spreading into neighboring countries.
“We have averted a much larger outbreak,” WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom told a news conference, adding that the affected area was contained and shrinking.
“Our target now is to finish it within the next six months.”
The number of new cases has halved to 25 per week since January, and the virus was now concentrated in Butembo and Katwa. However, community distrust and attacks by armed groups were hampering the response.
On Thursday, a group of young men attacked an Ebola center for the fifth time since last month, Congo’s health ministry said, after medics attempted to collect samples from the body of a man suspected of having died of the virus.
Police opened fire to disperse the crowd in the Biena health zone, west of Butembo, killing one person and injuring another, the ministry said in a statement.
Last week the head of medical charity MSF, which had two facilities attacked, said the battle against Ebola was being lost because ordinary people did not trust health workers and the response was overly militarized. Tedros, who has just returned from the outbreak zone, said local people were despairing and rightly wondered why the world was so exercised by Ebola while caring so little about other problems, including cholera and malaria.
“I’d actually like to call upon the international community to link the outbreak control now with developing the health system,” he said.
“That’s a big challenge. Otherwise we will appear as if we are preventing Ebola getting into other countries and we don’t care about the demands of the community.”
He said the WHO would not leave when the outbreak ended, but would help the government to build stronger health services.
He called on international donors to fund the $148 million plan to tackle Ebola in the next six months, a tiny spend compared to the potential cost. The worst outbreak, which killed 11,300 people in West Africa in 2013-2016, cost an estimated $53 billion, according to one study.
(Reporting by Tom Miles; Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba in Goma, Giulia Paravicini in Brussels and Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Alison Williams and Frances Kerry)