Ebola outbreak kills 15 in eastern Congo

An outbreak of the Ebola virus has killed 15 people in northeastern Congo and the local communities are quickly learning how frighteningly deadly the disease is, and how to prevent its spread.

"Ebola entered my house and I did not know what it was," said Gabriel Libina Alandato, who survived the hemorrhagic fever. "My three daughters and their mother died in August, but it is only when I was taken to the quarantine center that I learned about the disease."

Health officials say the population lacks knowledge of Ebola and must learn that the tradition of washing of corpses before funerals spreads the epidemic.

Although it is the ninth Ebola epidemic in Congo, it is the first one in the Haut-Uélé territory, in northeastern Congo. Ebola has no cure and is deadly in 40 percent to 90 percent of cases. The disease causes severe internal bleeding.

Initially restricted to Isiro, a city north in Haut-Uélé, the Ebola outbreak has now spread to Viadana, a town located 75 kilometers (47 miles) away. According to local medical staff, the virus was transmitted to a woman from Viadana when she attended the funeral of an Ebola victim in Isiro. She then travelled back to Viadana where she contaminated several people and died herself.

"A lady participated in a funeral and was contaminated. A second quarantine center was open in Viadana to isolate people who might have been contaminated," said Dr. Jacques Gumbaluka, the district's chief doctor. Three people have already died in Viadana, he said.

The washing and displaying of bodies during funerals, a widespread tradition, is intended to show love and respect for the deceased. But the practice facilitates the propagation of the epidemic as dozens of people come in close contact with victims of the deadly virus.

"The cases that have been identified are linked to certain practices like self-medication or the washing of the corpses and their exposition during funerals. People want to touch and see the body, it's the tradition everywhere in Africa," said Faïda Kanyombe, who is responsible for health promotion at Doctors without Borders in the province.

About 170 people are currently under surveillance after they came into contact with infected patients and 28 cases have been identified, of which eight have been confirmed.

Education campaigns led by Doctors without Borders, the World Health Organization and the Congolese ministry of health are going on in the area to warn people of the risks linked to this practice. Local medical staff members say people are responding well, although the epidemic is not yet fully under control.

"Even if it is not the first epidemic in Congo, it is the first one here. People had just heard about it and at the beginning they thought the deaths were due to poisoning because the disease has the same symptoms as a local poison," said Faïda Kanyombe. Local radio stations have been broadcasting information about Ebola and health promotion teams have been going in the field to meet with affected communities.

Psycho-socio support teams have also been sent to the area, to help survivors and victims' relatives to cope with the trauma. "It was horrible, it is a miracle I survived. But I can't forget what happened. I don't understand why my daughters died and I survived," said Gabriel Libina Alandato.

Ebola was first discovered in Congo in 1976 and the country has since been hit by several epidemics. "There is enough local expertise to manage the crisis. Local medical staff knows what to do," said Eugène Kabambi, the WHO spokesperson in Kinshasa. Doctors without Borders is managing the two quarantine centers in Isiro and Viadana and the UN has called for the creation of a $2 million fund to fight the epidemic.