FAITH leaders were not involved early enough in the fight against the latest Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), bishops in the country have said. They said that attacks on response teams sent in to vaccinate communities could have been prevented, and lives saved.
Roman Catholic bishops met last week in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province where the latest outbreak of Ebola is centred. The bishops said that the lessons of past outbreaks had not been learned, and churches had initially been left on the “sidelines” of the response, despite the fact that previous outbreaks had shown that they could play a crucial part in limiting the spread of the disease.
The RC Bishop of Goma, the Rt Revd Willy Ngumbi, said that church leaders were trusted in communities and were able to persuade them to accept vaccination and advice on how to prevent the spread of the disease.
“We are jubilant at the marvels of medical science in finding a vaccine to cure this deadly disease, but a cure brings no hope if fearful people have no trust in the health teams administering the drug.
“Without such work by the faith communities who have the trust of the local population, hundreds if not thousands more people will die of Ebola, and the disease could spread out of control.”
Church leaders are able to share messages on how loved ones can be prayed for without touching, and how funeral customs can be adapted to try to halt the spread of the disease.
“Here in DRC these lessons from the past are just starting to be realised. The Church was left on the sidelines at the start of the Ebola outbreak in August last year. We were not consulted right from the start. The result? Response teams have been attacked, even killed, and treatment centres burned down. We can play an essential role as faith leaders, in stemming the spread of this appalling disease,” Bishop Ngumbi said.
“Today, we are encouraging people to suspend normal practices, such as shaking hands during or after services, and to follow the rules of hygiene.
“Hand-washing kits have been placed at the entrance of each church, and the campaign against Ebola is promoted through prayers and hymns. But we could have done so much more, early on. The delay in involving us in the response has cost lives.”
Attacks on vaccination teams and aid workers occurred owing to high levels of mistrust and suspicion of “outsiders”, particularly in remote communities, after years of conflict in the country.
Church leaders are working with the RC aid agency CAFOD and other Christian NGOs, including Tearfund, to share prevention messages with local communities.
The outbreak in the DRC is now the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic on record, with more than 2100 dead and 3157 confirmed cases of the disease identified by last week. About 50 new cases are currently being been identified each week, though the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it fears that containing violence in some areas is preventing identification of the disease.
The WHO this week announced that a second vaccine will be introduced in DRC next month, for at-risk areas. The original Merck vaccine is being offered to people who have been close to someone who has the virus.
Médecins Sans Frontières has accused the WHO of restricting the availability of the vaccine. At least 2000 people should be receiving the vaccine each day, rather than the current 1000 a day, it said.