DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hundreds of volunteers in the Democratic Republic of Congo have set out on foot and motorbike to teach Ebola safety in a drive aid agencies say could be key to containing a deadly outbreak.
Community workers are racing to trace contacts of those infected by the virus and relay information to the public in northwest Congo, where an outbreak was detected at the start of May, in the hope of stopping its spread, the Red Cross said.
At least 27 people have been killed so far, including two who escaped quarantine in Mbandaka, a city of 1.5 million, where health experts fear the disease will be most difficult to halt.
Ebola is highly contagious and spreads through contact with the bodily fluids of its victims, often during burial rites. It killed at least 11,300 people in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone between 2013 and 2016.
“We still have time to contain the outbreak, and I think prevention work is where it will happen,” said Chiran Livera, head of the Ebola operation for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
“The more organizations that can focus on this community work the better,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Alongside the IFRC, the United Nations’ children’s agency (UNICEF) has mobilized about 1,000 local community workers to provide advice by going door-to-door and speaking in schools, markets, and churches in Mbandaka and its surrounding villages.
“We talk to them about what Ebola is, how it is transmitted, what the symptoms are,” said Balthazar Moyongo, 50, a community worker in Mbandaka.
“They’re not resistant,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone. “It encourages me because I think they understand what I’m telling them.”
Yet there is still a lot of work to be done, he added.
“The most important thing we tell them is to protect themselves, and don’t touch the bodies if someone dies,” said Eddy Eale, another community worker in Mbandaka.
The World Health Organization (WHO) rolled out an experimental vaccine this week for the first time in Congo, where there have been nine Ebola outbreaks since the disease made its first known appearance there in the 1970s.
“In previous outbreaks in DRC, community communication has proven to be crucial in terms of the effectiveness of the response to Ebola,” said Yves Willemot, a UNICEF spokesman.