Almost one hundred children in the Democratic Republic of Congo have lost their lives to the Ebola virus since the outbreak started in August last year. Save the Children warns the death toll could be set to rise as the number of new cases spiked in January, from around 20 a week to more than 40. Of the 97 children who lost their lives, 65 were younger than five years old.
Congo is battling the second largest Ebola-outbreak in history. Over the last six months, at least 785 people were believed to be infected with the virus (731 confirmed cases), of which 484 people died – 60 percent of them women. In the last three weeks of January alone, there were some 120 new cases.
The insecurity and violence in the east of the country combined with the fear and suspicion in some communities, make it difficult to contain the outbreak.
Heather Kerr, Save the Children’s Country Director in Congo, told “Zenit” news agency: “We are at a crossroads. If we don’t take urgent steps to contain this, the outbreak might last another six months, if not the whole year. The DRC is a country suffering from violence and conflict and an extreme hunger crisis—some 4.6 million children are acutely malnourished. The main concerns for many people are safety and making sure they have enough to eat. But Ebola has to be a priority too.”
An urgent concern
Ms. Kerr insisted: “It is paramount to convince communities that Ebola is an urgent and real concern. People have disturbed funerals as they didn’t believe the deceased had succumbed to the virus. Aid workers were threatened as it was believed they spread Ebola. We have to scale up our efforts to reach out to the vocal youth and community leaders to build trust and to help us turn this tide. Treating the people who are sick is essential, but stopping Ebola from spreading further is just as important.”
Save the Children is supporting the fight against the Ebola outbreak by raising awareness among communities in the hardest-hit Beni region.
Marie-Claire Mbombo, a Child Protection officer for Save the Children, said that a young boy told her that his parents never spoke about the virus at home, it was a taboo, and that made him afraid. After a big awareness campaign, they started talking and he’s less afraid now that they know how to avoid it.
“Many children are being left alone for different reasons. In some cases their parents are at the hospital or working in the field, other children were orphaned. Children left alone are at increased risk of sexual abuse, or of having to work. Some of them are selling peanuts by the side of the road to get by. We support parents and communities on how to prevent the disease, but also how to make sure children are safe.”
Train local workers
To curb the virus, Save the Children deployed its Emergency Health Unit to train local health workers. The organization also raises awareness of the virus, including in health centres—42 of which are close to Goma, the largest town in the region, to help stop the virus from reaching this large urban area. It also sends out teams to raise awareness in rural communities—including training community leaders to recognize symptoms and support community-based surveillance—and to help trace people that might have come into contact with the virus.
So far, Save the Children has reached almost 400,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo with information on how to recognize the symptoms of Ebola and how to prevent it. As there remains a threat of cases spreading across the border to Uganda, where refugees from the DRC continue to arrive daily, Save the Children has trained more than 1,000 health workers, volunteers, teachers, village health teams and laboratory staff in Uganda on key steps to preventing and mitigating the spread.