In Congo, a new and less isolating Ebola treatment centre

BENI, Congo (AP) – Two times a day, Kasereka Mulanda comes to a new kind of Ebola treatment centre to visit his wife, easing the isolation of a highly contagious disease.

Stepping to the clear plastic sheeting around the cubicle where his wife is staying, he can speak with her without the need for a protective suit. In a part of Congo that faces a deadly Ebola outbreak for the first time, the contact is reassuring.

“When she looks at me and smiles and asks how our two children are doing, I tell her they are well,” the 24-year-old Mulanda said. “I feel that we are together again and that she will quickly return home.”

The current Ebola outbreak in northeastern Congo, declared on August 1, has become a testing ground in more ways than one.

Over 7,000 people have received an experimental Ebola vaccine. More than two dozen have received one of several experimental treatments.

A health worker sprays disinfectant on his colleague after working at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, Eastern Congo
Kasereka Mulanda talks to his wife who is suffering from the Ebola virus in an isolation area in Beni
Kasereka Mulanda waits to see his wife at an isolation area in Beni. – PHOTOS: AP

Simply combating the virus is a challenge in a densely populated region, roamed by multiple armed groups, that health workers have called a war zone.

Now one aid group for the first time is treating confirmed Ebola victims in what is called the CUBE, individual biosecure units used in emergencies involving highly infectious diseases. ALIMA (The Alliance For International Medical Action) runs the 18-bed centre in Beni.

The cubicles, which have been used in outbreaks of Lassa fever in Nigeria and Marburg in Uganda, allow the treatment of Ebola to be more social for worried families, said ALIMA’s medical coordinator Dr Oummani Rouafi.

“It is very much unlike other centres where civilians cannot enter the treatment tents or approach what we call the ‘red zone,’” said the organisation’s emergency response coordinator in Beni Claude Mahoudeau.

With the cubicles, health workers can largely operate without the protective equipment that posed a sweaty, humid challenge in the devastating West Africa outbreak in 2014-2016, instead treating patients via external arm holes.

Of the 16 confirmed Ebola cases treated at the centre, four people have recovered, four remain in treatment and eight have died.

Overall the outbreak in Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces has seen 100 confirmed Ebola cases, including 58 deaths.

Health workers are tracking thousands of contacts of people and trying to persuade residents to use safe burial and other practices to limit the virus spread by the fluids of infected people.

The World Health Organization has expressed optimism that the efforts are working, but worries remain that the virus could spread into areas of active attacks by armed groups where it is unsafe to operate.