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The Massive Effort To Halt Ebola In Congo


Congo has dealt with Ebola before. The virus was discovered there in 1976, and it handled the previous nine outbreaks without major problems. But the current outbreak is now more than a year old, and the death toll has exceeded 2,000 people. It's the second-deadliest outbreak in history.

NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on the massive effort to stop the outbreak and why it hasn't worked.


EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Even at Sunday mass, you cannot avoid the signs of Ebola. At the entrance of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, a team of health officials wearing gloves and goggles watches as everyone washes their hands with a bleach and water solution. And then, one by one - even the little kids - they take everyone's temperature.


JEAN ROGER PALUKA LULA: One, two, three, four, five, six.

PERALTA: Jean Roger Paluka Lula, a health worker, shows me around. A whole family of six people have a high fever - one of the early symptoms of Ebola. They will be interviewed. And if they've been anywhere near the disease, they will be isolated.

PALUKA LULA: (Through translator) At the beginning, there was much resistance because people were not informed.

PERALTA: The epicenter of the Ebola outbreak is north of here. But when the virus traveled hundreds of miles south here to Goma, it raised alarm. This is a transit hub, with an international airport just across the border from Rwanda. The World Health Organization said the outbreak was now of international concern, and funds and resources poured into Eastern Congo.

People here in Goma reacted like many people up north. They threw rocks at health workers, suspicious that they were profiting off the response. Here in this neighborhood, where the first case was confirmed, they barricaded roads. They refused to wash their hands.

PALUKA LULA: (Through translator) The temperature measurement that we're using, before they were thinking that that's the tool that contaminates people with Ebola.

PERALTA: But health workers did what they've done many times here in Congo. They went deep into the neighborhoods, explaining the disease, the treatments, and they talked to leaders. They convinced more than 1,000 people to take an experimental vaccine. And here, at least, people understood. The outbreak was controlled. Goma is the way a response is supposed to work.

NATALIE ROBERTS: But it's not just a disease. This is not sort of dealing with it on paper. It's dealing with it in this very, very difficult context, Eastern Congo being a very, very complicated environment in which to work.

PERALTA: That's Natalie Roberts, operations manager for Doctors Without Borders. Once you leave Goma, she says, things complicate themselves much more. The infrastructure crumbles. The security situation deteriorates. And everything becomes harder - moving around, keeping vaccines cold, tracking down who will likely be exposed to the virus and vaccinating them.

Not only that, she says, but the Ebola outbreak is happening in a part of Congo that experiences so much other suffering. This year, for example, more people have been killed by measles than Ebola. Dozens of others have been killed by militias in the region.

ROBERTS: This population in this context have 99 problems, and Ebola is just one of them. I mean, it is a big one, but it's just one of their problems.


PERALTA: Not far from the church, I head to the house of Esperance Nabintu. Out front, on a wall made from the red volcanic rock that's everywhere in this region, she's pinned a picture of her 46-year-old husband who had just died of Ebola.

ESPERANCE NABINTU: (Through translator) My husband was a good husband. He was handsome. He was well-created.

PERALTA: There are few jobs in Goma, so her husband had to travel hundreds of miles on a motorcycle to work at a gold mine up north. When he came back for a break, he was already infected. Nabintu, who is 42, had 12 kids. Two of them died when they were babies from malaria.

NABINTU: (Through translator) Life here is very, very hard.

PERALTA: She and her six-month-old were both infected with Ebola, but they were saved by a new experimental treatment that was first tested and proven clearly effective here in Congo. She sits amid all her neighbors, amid all her family, who have come to mourn with her, to sing spirituals.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).

PERALTA: She's thankful, she says, but then her thoughts trail.

NABINTU: (Through translator) I can't stop thinking. I was married. I lost my husband who was the head of the family.

PERALTA: And now what happens to her children? How does she school them, feed them?

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is an international correspondent for NPR. He was named NPR's Mexico City correspondent in 2022. Before that, he was based in Cape Town, South Africa.
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