Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Mbandaka: Ebola menaces Congo again

They arrived at the Ebola isolation ward in Mbandaka in the evening.

Six taxi-motorbikes carried family members of two Ebola victims. The traditional witchdoctors have slowly been replaced by religious sects, whose pastors and prophets cast out sickness-causing demons – often for a fee. The two sick people, in the most contagious phase of the disease, were taken to one such prayer group of fifty people. After a while, they went back to the hospital because they felt so bad. Within hours of returning, they sadly both died. It was then necessary to trace everyone they’d been in contact with – including the motorbike drivers.

Fr Stan and Francis Hannaway onboard the flight Mbandaka to Kinshasa.

Mbandaka is usually our only route from Basankusu to Kinshasa. Fr. Stan Bondoko was on his way to a meeting in Rome. I thought it would be prudent to travel with him as far as Kinshasa to avoid the outbreak, until it was contained. We arrived in Mbandaka a few days before the two patients escaped.

People seemed quite relaxed about the whole thing. Greeting friends with a clenched fist instead of a handshake became a bit of a joke – people would do it and then shake your hand anyway!

Meeting our East African students in Mbandaka on their way home to Basankusu.
The centre of the outbreak is in a rural area just outside of Mbandaka. A few people, returning from the infected area have succumbed to the disease in Mbandaka. The town lies on the Congo River and is an absolute crossroads – especially for river traffic – for the north-west of the country. Symptoms don’t show for up to twenty-one days, and so it’s quite possible to board a plane to Kinshasa with the illness.

At Mbandaka Airport we were obliged to wash our hands in chlorinated water before boarding our plane, but that was all.

Getting off the plane in Kinshasa every passenger’s temperature was taken. We had to quickly fill in a form declaring that we weren’t suffering from certain symptoms, such as headaches or fever, and that we hadn’t touched any dead bodies lately. Whew! ... and then we were allowed to enter the airport building.

At the time of writing, there were still new cases of Ebola in the rural area where it began. At least fifty cases had been reported from the beginning. Basankusu, where I work, is the next substantial settlement along the river – no cases had been reported there. The World Health Organisation is working hard to end the outbreak.

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