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Why the DRC's latest Ebola outbreak is more worrisome than the last

Doctors were better prepared for this outbreak, but it's already become Africa's second-deadliest ever, partly because it's happening in a war zone.

by Maeva Bambuck
Feb 26 2019, 6:33pm

BENI, Congo — It's now more than six months since the start of an Ebola outbreak in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. And even though doctors were better prepared for this outbreak, it's already been particularly deadly, partly because it's happening in a war zone.

The current epidemic of the virus has claimed about 500 lives, and there's concern it may spread to a major population center.

When the virus hit last August, doctors had learned from previous outbreaks in Central Africa and the western part of DRC how to quickly set up treatment centers, gear up doctors with hazmat suits, and organize the response, which includes caregiving by people who survived the virus and are now immune.

But Ebola is a cruel killer, and by hitting north Kivu it targeted an already vulnerable population. An Islamist militant group called the Allied Defence Force (ADF) is fighting the army for territory and terrorizing the population. Roads are often too dangerous for medical response teams to reach the sick and stop them from spreading the disease.

“Once a village is attacked, there’s a movement of people, so the sick person moves, and the disease spreads from one village to another," said Justus Nsio Mbeta, a representative of the Ministry of Health in the village of Beni. In addition, gangs often take advantage of the lawlessness to loot villages and kidnap women.

As part of the response, the pharmaceutical giant Merck is sending a new batch of promising experimental vaccines to the World Health Organization in the region to vaccinate healthy populations as well as in neighboring countries to stop the spread of the virus. It can't come soon enough, with the health community worrying Ebola might reach Goma, a densely populated city of 1 million, where it would spread faster than in the countryside. So far, there have not been any reported cases.

"Clearly, we can't become complacent," Matshidiso Moeti, WHO's regional director for Africa, said earlier this month. "The greatest risk, which is related to insecurity, continues to be a factor."

This segment originally aired February 12, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.