Revolts, new Japanese test, 31 deaths in DRC, hunger, and football games: Ebola's grim drama continues

Ironically, some of the measures like quarantines, border and port closures, plus flight cancellations could lead to more, not less, deaths.

AN outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has killed 31 people, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday.

“There are now 31 deaths,” Eugene Kambambi, the WHO’s head of communication in DR Congo, told AFP, citing Congolese authorities and stressing that the epidemic “remains contained” in an area around 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of the capital Kinshasa.

Health officials had previously given a death toll of 13 people from the lethal haemorrhagic fever since August 11 around the isolated town of Boende, surrounded by dense tropical forest in Equateur province.

The government first announced on August 25 that the DRC was facing its seventh Ebola outbreak since the disease was first identified in the former Zaire in 1976.

However, Health Minister Felix Kabange Numbi has ruled out any link with a serious Ebola epidemic sweeping parts of west Africa, on the grounds that there had been no contact between those distant nations and Boende.

The Ebola outbreak has killed 1,552 people and infected 3,062: 694 in Liberia; 430 in Guinea; 422 in Sierra Leone and six in Nigeria, according to the latest WHO figures.

Hunger fears

The United Nations meanwhile warned Tuesday of “grave food security concerns” in the west African countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak as the deadly epidemic caused labour shortages and disrupted cross-border trade.

Restrictions on movement in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has led to panic buying, food shortages and severe price hikes, especially in towns and cities, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said.

“Access to food has become a pressing concern for many people in the three affected countries and their neighbours,” said Bukar Tijani, FAO Regional Representative for Africa.

“With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come.

Quarantine zones imposed in the epicentre of the outbreak straddling the three west African countries will lead to food shortages for “large numbers” of people, the FAO said, with the main harvest season for rice and maize just weeks away.

Production of cash crops like palm oil, cocoa and rubber is also expected to be seriously affected, throwing people further into poverty.

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone rely heavily on imports for cereals and other commodities.

New Japanese test

The closure of border crossings where the three countries meet, as well as reduced trade at seaports, is strangling supply and sending prices soaring, the FAO said.

In Liberia, which has been hardest-hit by the outbreak with 694 deaths, the price of cassava in market stalls in Monrovia went up 150 percent within the first weeks of August, the FAO said.

“Even prior to the Ebola outbreak, households in some of the affected areas were spending up to 80 percent of their incomes on food,” said Vincent Martin, Head of FAO’s Resilience Hub in Dakar, Senegal.

“Now these latest price spikes are effectively putting food completely out of their reach. This situation may have social repercussions that could lead to subsequent impact on the disease containment.”

The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has launched a regional emergency operation to get 65,000 tonnes of food to 1.3 million people in the worst-hit areas.

Amidst the grim news, there were two new glimmers of hope. Japanese researchers said Tuesday they had developed a new method to detect the presence of the Ebola virus in 30 minutes, with technology that could allow doctors to quickly diagnose infection.

Professor Jiro Yasuda and his team at Nagasaki University say their process is also cheaper than the system currently in use in west Africa.

“The new method is simpler than the current one and can be used in countries where expensive testing equipment is not available,” Yasuda told AFP by telephone.

Football quarrels and threats

And from the Cote d’Ivore capital Abdijan, the government government on Tuesday relented and agreed to let the national football team play an Africa Cup of Nations match against Sierra Leone that it had banned because of Ebola virus fears.

Cote d’Ivore had been warned they could be excluded from the Nations Cup finals if they refused to play Sierra Leone, one of the countries worst hit by the incurable disease.

The Ivory Coast Football Federation said that most of the players, including Yaya Toure of Manchester City, Salomon Kalou of Hertha Berlin and Gervinho of AS Roma had arrived in Abidjan on Monday to prepare for Sunday’s game.

The government had repeatedly refused to allow the qualifying game to be held in Abidjan.

It added that the decision was taken after the Sierra Leone federation had given a guarantee that no member of its delegation had been in a country affected by the Ebola virus for the 21 days before the match.

After the Ivory Coast game, Sierra Leone will play a home game against Democratic Republic of Congo in the DRC city of Lubumbashi.

Sierra Leone had already promised that all of its players for the Nations Cup qualifying game would be foreign based professionals so that they did not need medical clearance.

Ebola denial

Ivory Coast banned the hosting of all international sport in the country last month in a bid to keep Ebola out.

The Confederation of African Football (CAF) had warned the country however that it risked being thrown out of the tournament if they refused to play.

The finals are in Morocco in January—if Ebola does not throw a spanner in the works.

One critical factor that could scupper progress against Ebola, despite the new test methods, experimental drugs and other measures, has been one of the more bizarre features of a deadly epidemic: a vocal minority in west African society denying that Ebola exists even as family and friends die around them.

A leading social anthropologist who spent a month among communities in the epicentre claims that “Ebola-denial” is perhaps more complex than it first appears.

“When people say that Ebola does not exist, they are rebelling against something,” Senegalese university professor Cheikh Ibrahima Niang told AFP.

“They are in situations where they were not consulted and feel that they are treated with a lot of paternalism.”

Doctors and nurses—often from global aid agencies—are not only fighting the disease, but also a deep mistrust in communities often in the thrall of wild rumours that the virus was invented by the West or is a hoax.

Seventeen Ebola patients in the Liberian capital Monrovia fled from a guarantine centre two weeks ago after it was attacked by club-wielding youths shouting “there’s no Ebola” in the latest of a series of such incidents across the region.

“We need to ask what is making them say that,” Niang told AFP in an interview at Dakar’s Cheik Anta Diop University.

“People have the impression that they are not getting all the necessary information or they do not agree with the prevention measures and medical procedures being imposed on them.”

Niang believes that “counterproductive” border closures were an example of the wrong approach, giving at-risk populations a false sense of security and propagating complacency.

“There is a very important African metaphor that says a forest fire which has spread to a town or community needs to be fought at its origins. Barricading myself at home and stockpiling water for when it arrives will not put it out,” he said.

“How many people cross the border at night, by bush tracks and trails, because this border, a colonial legacy, is artificial?” he asked.

Wrong-headed approaches

Niang said the strictly clinical approach to combating Ebola had provided “relatively limited” success because it failed to take into account local sensitivities.

“It only sees the disease and not the context. This is one of the reasons why the problem has been slow to have an adequate response,” he told AFP.

Niang believes that talk of the African reluctance to accept modern clinical practices comes from a “reductive medical vision”.

The problem is not that locals don’t accept medicine can work, it’s that they are mistrustful of an invading culture coming into their homeland telling them how they should behave.

Niang believes that western models of targeting individuals in education campaigns have been equally wrong-headed, when it is families who are primarily affected by the virus.

He said the response to the epidemic was being led by men and called for more women to be placed in decision-making positions.

He called for “greater political will of our (west African) states, resources to be mobilised to send teams to provide clinical and sociological answers”.

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