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Ebola is back, but will witchcraft prevent vaccine?

A new Ebola outbreak has been declared in the Democratic Republic of Congo after the deaths of three people have been linked to the virus. At least one of the deceased has tested positive for the virus, according to the DRC's health ministry. But will a vaccine trump witchcraft?

Published: May 22, 2017, 10:59 am

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    Tests from nine people who came down with a hemorrhagic fever in Bas-Uele province on or after April 22, showed the disease, the statement said.

    Bushmeat was believed to be at the origin of the former devastating West African Ebola outbreak. The first victim’s family ate bats, which carry the virus. The meat of wild animals is popular in Africa, including eating chimpanzees, fruit bats and rats. It can even include porcupines and snakes.

    But Africans believe Ebola is a result of witchcraft and “evil spirits”, not bushmeat.

    “Ebola is a very frightening disease and you have different perceptions of disease … anthropologists are going out to see if people believe this is an infectious disease or if it is witchcraft or something,” said Hilde de Clerck. She works for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has also sent emergency teams to the DRC.

    “If we get the trust, then we can move on. This is something you need to do before the launch. You could do more harm, you could frighten people, they could misunderstand what the vaccine is.”

    In Africa’s Congo Basin, people eat an estimated five million tonnes of bushmeat per year, according to the Centre of International Forestry Research.

    Ebola was first identified in 1976, and this is the eighth outbreak since 1976 in the DRC, but the virus has never spread as fast or as far as it did in West Africa.

    In West Africa, between December 2013 and January 2016, more than 11 000 people died from the disease. In 2014, a three-month outbreak in DR Congo killed 49 people.

    The World Health Organisation however declared Ebola no longer an emergency in March 2016.

    In early May the WHO celebrated in Guinea with CEO Margaret Chan, at the epicentre of the devastating 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak. In the capital, Conakry, Chan announced that trials for the Ebola vaccine had been successful.

    “Scientists do not yet know exactly where in nature the Ebola virus hides between outbreaks but nearly all experts agree that another outbreak is inevitable. When this occurs, the world will be far better prepared.”

    As Chan spoke, the next outbreak was already in progress. On April 22, in Likati, a remote northern region in the DRC, the new case of Ebola was diagnosed.

    As of May 15, there were 19 suspected cases and three fatalities, according to the WHO.

    There are reportedly 300 000 doses of the vaccine on standby in Canada, paid for by Canadian taxpayers. The cost of getting it to Africa is daunting.

    “The affected area is facing a big logistical challenge, with the lack of the cold chain, on how to maintain a good temperature of the vaccine once in the remote and forested field. This requires a huge logistical operation to mount for that issue,” said Eugene Kabembi, a WHO spokesperson.

    The origin of the West African outbreak was traced to a two-year-old child from the village of Gueckedou in south-eastern Guinea, an area where batmeat is frequently eaten.

    The infant, dubbed Child Zero, died on 6 December 2013. The child’s family confirmed that they had eaten two species of bat which carry the Ebola virus.

    The Washington Post questioned at the time why “Africans keep hunting and eating bushmeat despite Ebola concerns”, but could provide no answer.

    A team of personnel, along with experts and specialists from Médecins Sans Frontières, the US Centre for Disease Control, Unicef and WHO, will be deployed to tackle the latest outbreak.

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