Jul 18, 2019 | Updated: 10:03 AM EDT

The Medical Response to the Ebola Virus is Being Threatened by Gossip

Apr 20, 2019 02:18 PM EDT

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An average of nearly 20 new cases of the Ebola virus are being documented every day in two northeast provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Both areas just so happen to be hotbeds for conflict where political tensions run high. Many of the victims are being noticed outside treatment centers after they refuse to seek help, officials said. The epidemic has left more than 700 dead and affected more than 1,000 people.

As a matter of fact, some people who have contracted Ebola are deciding that they would rather die at home than seek treatment as conspiracy theories give way to distrust of the government and of health workers currently handling the crisis. In addition to battling a destructive disease, health workers are having to dismiss speculations that the disease is manufactured and that the millions of dollars spent on the response are part of a money-making scheme scornfully referred to as the "Ebola business."

"We have lost the trust of the community," Tariq Riebl of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee told one news outlet.

A recent study has shown that 25 percent of people surveyed in the affected areas do not trust that Ebola is true, while 36 percent thought it was made-up to disrupt the region. "It's all about money, that we're getting bonuses for cases we find, that prolonging the response helps the business side," Riebl said, listing some of the falsehoods that have been heard in local communities.

"Some people in Butembo even believe that when you go there they inject you with the disease," according to Anifa Vahavi who is a demographic researcher working in Butembo, which is one of the worst-affected areas. She has met cynicism about Ebola's existence and origins, and questions about why aid workers take extra precautions when treating it compared to malaria or cholera.

Ebola treatment centers started by the central government in partnership with international aid groups have been met with disbelief. Designed to isolate and treat suspected cases of Ebola and staffed by health workers wearing bulky "space suits," the centers come with an increased presence of police and military forces. Extremely deep-rooted opposition to the government in the areas affected by the epidemic means that even the arrival of foreign aid is treated with hesitation.

However, all is not at a loss, Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga recently returned from a visit to the affected area of Butembo and went on record stating that "community mistrust" had even been fueled by candidates running for office. "When the outbreak started in August, it was during the electoral period, so unfortunately some local politicians deliberately spread lies to boost popularity ahead of elections," he said. He's more optimistic now that the elections have taken place, saying that a vaccination campaign-which reached more than 100,000 people in the Ebola-effected region-has been effective. "Things are improving," he added.

Aid agencies have also taken unique steps to try to moderate local suspicions about the Ebola response, including changing how they are handling burials of the deceased.

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