Fighting Ebola in Congo

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Another Ebola outbreak.

Health workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are struggling to contain the latest outbreak of the virus. It’s made more than 3,000 people sick in the last year. More than half of those have died.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: International agencies like the World Health Organization are working with local officials to contain the outbreak. But Christian groups are also playing a role. U.S. based World Relief is working with local churches in the Congo to spread the word about prevention.

Charles Franzen is the organization’s director of humanitarian and disaster response. He joins us now to talk about it.

Good morning, Charles!


REICHARD: Start by telling of some of the challenges in fighting Ebola in Congo. Is it different than in other countries?

FRANZEN: It’s different, yes. Congo is a country that’s not new to Ebola. Ebola was first identified in Congo, so there have been a number of incidences of Ebola in the past. But the problem that we’re facing now in Congo is that the area where Ebola has emerged is also an area where there is both conflict from various militia groups, but also an extreme amount of distrust of health workers.

REICHARD: Why is that?

FRANZEN: Well, the Congolese history—which was a very bitter history, both colonially and post-colonially— is one in which people, especially rural people, have a very low degree of trust in authority and leadership. And there’s also a very strong feeling that what is actually taking place is something that is more complex than is being explained to people. That it’s not just an issue of disease but also it’s an issue of Western intervention.

REICHARD: What are local churches able to do given that situation then?

FRANZEN: Well, we work with quite a large number of local churches, denominations, and church networks and World Relief works with the local leadership of those churches in order to talk about the real morphology of the disease, the real causes of it, etiology—as we say—and then also very much the issue of combatting rumors, bad stories that people are telling which actually prevents people from seeking treatment and sometimes makes them very angry about health workers, even to the point of attacking and destroying some of the health centers. 

REICHARD: How would say the response in Congo compares to what we saw in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014?

FRANZEN: Well, the response is interesting. I think the international response—now that it has been declared an international health emergency—has been quite impressive. But the big issue, really, is one of dealing with a disease that is both on the active line of conflict and also in areas that are very, very difficult and inaccessible to reach. And so it’s really, the west Africa that it was in areas that had the higher populations and where authority had better control. In Congo, the disease is actually in quite a forested area on the border with Uganda. Very difficult for health workers to get in. Very difficult for authorities to have control over an area where some of it is controlled by militias.

REICHARD:  Earlier this week U.S. officials voiced concern about a case in Tanzania that looked a lot like Ebola but wasn’t confirmed to be Ebola. 

Are you worried that this outbreak will spread, and are churches elsewhere equipped to step up like they are in Congo?

FRANZEN: Well, I think, you know, Ebola is difficult because there are many hemorrhagic fevers and there are many diseases which present early symptoms that are similar to Ebola. And so we have to be very careful about what actually is confirmed as Ebola cases. But I think the regions and the countries surrounding the area—Uganda and Rwanda, and Burundi—the churches are quite well-equipped to deal with rumors and other things. And the authorities, the health authorities are also, have the capacity to deal with Ebola. I would say there is a risk of it moving around more than it has now, but also vaccination, which is now more than 240,000 people have been vaccinated for Ebola. So I think we’ll see a shift downwards before too much more time takes place.

REICHARD: Charles Franzen is director of humanitarian and disaster response for World Relief. Thanks so much for joining us today!

FRANZEN: Thank you very much!

(AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi, File) In this Friday, June 14, 2019 file photo, people coming from Congo have their temperature measured to screen for symptoms of Ebola, at the Mpondwe border crossing with Congo, in western Uganda. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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