The World Health Organization has evacuated 16 people working to contain the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo following a rebel attack near the area where they were staying, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Saturday.
The decision marks another violence-related setback for the response to the outbreak, but Tedros said in an interview with STAT that he hoped containment operations could resume as normal soon.
Overall, the response team in the area comprises more than 200 health workers and others, he said.
The attack appears to have targeted a camp used by United Nations peacekeeping forces in Beni, a city in northeastern Congo that is currently a hot spot for Ebola transmission. The camp is located near a hotel where some Ebola responders are staying.
Tedros said leaders of the response operation called him to inform him an attack was underway on Friday night, and he could hear heavy gunfire over the phone.
“They called me immediately and the gunfire was very close to them,” he said.
After Friday night’s violence subsided, several members of the Ebola response team “were exhibiting some distress,” Tedros said, and a decision was made to pull them back to Goma, a city south of Beni, so that they could get a few days of rest and counseling. Others insisted on staying in Beni, he said, calling them “very courageous people.”
Friday’s violence was the latest in a string of attacks in the region. Earlier in the week eight peacekeepers and at least 12 Congolese soldiers died in an ambush on their joint operation aimed at routing out a stronghold of the rebel group Allied Democratic Forces near Beni. A number of rebels were captured in the exchange.
That event again prompted the U.N. to call for a halt to the violence in the region, suggesting attacks on the peacekeepers may be deemed war crimes under international law.
The Ebola outbreak response has been struggling because of the violence in the region and the distrust it fosters among people in the region who have lived with these conditions for years.
Repeated bouts of violence have hampered the ability of the response teams to do their work, and the virus has taken advantage of their limitations.
As of Saturday there have been 358 confirmed and probable cases in this outbreak, and 213 of those people have died. It is the third largest Ebola outbreak on record and the largest in Congo’s long history with Ebola outbreaks.
Last week Dr. Peter Salama, who heads the WHO’s emergency response program, suggested it will take at least another six months to contain the outbreak in DRC.
The director general noted that containment team operations resumed Saturday, but on a somewhat reduced scale. Efforts to vaccinate people who have been in contact with Ebola cases were suspended for the day. “If tonight is OK, they will continue with vaccination tomorrow,” Tedros said.
The director general said that the Ebola response team asked for more protection and that he had discussions with the head of the peacekeeping operation as well as with Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations.
“They’re putting more troops and maximizing the protection. So we will use all the means we have … to protect all humanitarian workers there,” Tedros said.