GENEVA — Insecurity, public defiance about vaccinations and political jockeying could create a “perfect storm” leading Congo’s latest Ebola outbreak to spread, the emergencies chief for the World Health Organization said Tuesday.
Dr. Peter Salama said the response to the deadly hemorrhagic fever is at a “critical juncture” in eastern North Kivu province, where the outbreak was declared nearly two months ago. Health officials have reported 119 confirmed cases, including 69 deaths.
WHO’s operations in Beni, where work to control the outbreak is centered, are “in effect suspended” following a weekend attack by suspected Allied Democratic Forces rebels that killed at least 18 people, Salama said.
It was the seventh attack officials have recorded during the outbreak. The ADF rebels have been able to overrun Congolese military bases and ambush U.N. peacekeeping forces, he said.
Salama said it was unclear when operations might resume but that an official mourning period is expected to last until Friday. There are no plans for WHO or other United Nations staff to pull out, he said.
Overall trends in the Ebola response have been positive, Salama said. But the deadly threat posed by rebel groups, public fears about treatment options in a region facing its first Ebola outbreak and politicians fanning those fears ahead of elections in December have presented challenges.
Such factors “may be coming together over the next weeks to months to create a potential perfect storm,” he said.
He also raised concerns about international spread of Ebola, particularly to nearby Uganda, which was facing an “imminent” threat after a confirmed death near the border last week. Local officials said the woman, who had participated in burials of Ebola victims, had refused a vaccination for the disease and then disappeared.
Congo’s health ministry says more than 5.3 million people have been checked for Ebola at various points along the heavily traveled border. Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi also border the region.
More than 11,000 people have been vaccinated in this outbreak.