AMID widespread suspicion that the Ebola virus is a conspiracy, and mistrust of those who are seeking to treat the disease, church leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are on the front line of delivering public-health messages, Tearfund reported this week.
Reuters reports that the outbreak in the eastern region of the country is now spreading at its fastest rate to date, owing “largely to a spate of attacks by militiamen and others distrustful of the international response”. Many people believed that the Ebola virus was “a conspiracy cooked up by the government or foreign countries”, and had refused vaccines and resisted treatment.
In the past two months, five Ebola centres have been attacked, and a senior World Health Organization official was killed by militiamen.
Tearfund’s Programmes Director in DRC, Hebdavi Muhindo, said on Monday that there was a “problem of trust”. Ebola needed a “change of behaviour”, including an end to shaking hands; and precautionary measures taken at funerals, and “this message is best passed by people they trust”.
In the eastern region, where the epidemic is concentrated, 85 per cent of people were Christians, he said, and, while markets and schools had been emptied for fear of contamination, churches were still “packed”. Tearfund was helping to provide church leaders with “a good understanding of what the virus is all about”, with a focus on preventative measures, and information about the early signs of the disease. The earlier that people seek medical care, the better their chance of survival.
Pastors were doing door-to-door visits, he said, helping to overcome the “taboo” around the disease, and offering “crucial” psycho-social support to those who had been bereaved.
“Everyone has to be careful — that includes faith leaders as well, because this is really very contagious,” he said. “One of the reasons we bring them together is to bring peer support among them, so one pastor does not feel isolated. They are able to talk about the risks they are facing themselves, because they are in contact with so many people.”
A positive outcome was that different denominations had “come closer together because of this crisis”.
The Ebola virus is only one of the crises that has affected the eastern DRC in recent years. Armed groups are active, causing many people to flee the area, and sexual violence has been widespread.
Aid agencies have suggested that more food aid could help stop the spread of the disease. “It is very unlikely for somebody who is without shelter, without food, without education for their children . . . to run and go to get treatment when their basic needs were never addressed,” a spokeswoman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, Kimberly Bennett, told Reuters.
Mr Muhindo expressed concern that the epidemic had not received more media attention. It is the second largest in history, after the West African epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016. Since August 2018, 1400 cases have been confirmed, and 957 people have died. “It’s not just statistics, it’s individuals,” he said.
There was cause for hope, he said. A 17-year-old girl, Divine, had recently thanked Tearfund and its partners for educating her about the symptoms of the Ebola virus. She had sought help quickly, and survived the disease.
“There is hope here that, if the message is passed, if we continue reaching out and educating more people . . . this epidemic can be controlled,” he said.