Community mistrust worsening DR Congo Ebola outbreak: study

Thursday, March 28, 2019
By Paul Martin

A new study says a quarter of people interviewed in eastern DR Congo last year believe Ebola is not real.

One in four people interviewed in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last year believed Ebola wasn’t real, according to a new study, underscoring the enormous challenges healthcare workers are now facing.

Health workers said public mistrust is now the biggest obstacle to stopping the epidemic, with many refusing vaccines, resisting treatment and concealing symptoms, as the world’s second-biggest Ebola outbreak spreads.

This mistrust resulted in people being 15 times less likely to seek medical treatment at an Ebola health centre, according to the study published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.

The study, released on Wednesday, was based on interviews conducted last September, about a month after the outbreak began. It comes as the number of probable and confirmed cases exceeds 1,000.

At least 639 people have died from Ebola in eastern DRC since August in what is now the second-deadliest outbreak in history, according to the World Health Organization.

In recent weeks, there have been, on average, eight new cases a day, said the country’s health ministry.

The response to the outbreak has been hampered by a series of deadly attacks on Ebola health centres since the study was completed. As a result, Doctors Without Borders has stopped staffing two health centres at the outbreak’s epicentre after violent attacks.

Researchers found that trust in public authorities had already fallen in the cities of Beni and Butembo before Ebola hit, due to decades of conflict and poor governance.

Accelerated distrust

“It’s been three years now that we saw a declining level of trust in those actors, and the Ebola crisis comes on top of that and accelerates the distrust,” said Patrick Vinck of Harvard University, who led the research.

“In some ways, we are now paying the consequences of many years of lack of interest and focus on this issue.”

Eva Erlach, the community engagement and accountability delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said the findings show how the level of trust correlates with preventive behaviours.

The organisation has had more than 800 trained volunteers working to get prevention messages out amid the region’s security challenges.

“There is still a part of the community who do not believe that Ebola is real and we definitely still need to continue focusing on community engagement,” said Erlach, who was not part of the study. “And this is why this report is so helpful, even if it’s from September.”

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