The world’s second-biggest Ebola outbreak has killed more than 1,700 people since last August, as efforts to combat the virus have been hobbled by frequent militia violence and low public trust.
Unidentified attackers ransacked an Ebola clinic responsible for testing suspected patients in Butembo, an Ebola-stricken city in North Kivu province.
“They also stole drugs” needed to treat Ebola patients, Donat Kibwana, a local health official, told AFP.
Violent, sometimes deadly, attacks on treatment centres by armed groups and untrusting villagers who view the disease as a foreign conspiracy have made it difficult for health teams to prevent Ebola’s spread.
The hemorrhagic fever, which causes severe vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding, has killed more than 1,700 people since it was first detected in August 2018, and shows no sign of slowing.
Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the DR Congo outbreak an international health emergency after the virus threatened to spread to the major city of Goma and into neighbouring countries.
But the WHO’s warning led to the resignation of DR Congo’s health minister Oly Ilunga, who was stripped of responsibility for managing the outbreak by President Felix Tshisekedi on Saturday.
Mr Tshisekedi appointed a team led by Jean-Jacques Muyembe, the head of the country’s biomedical research institute, to coordinate the government’s response in Mr Illunga’s place, potentially clearing the way for the introduction of a second vaccine to contain the worsening epidemic.
In his resignation letter, the health chief denounced pressure by unnamed “actors” to roll out the experimental vaccine, manufactured by Johnson&Johnson and backed by the WHO.
Mr Ilunga has outright refused to use the J&J vaccine, which is designed to complement a Merck treatment that has been given to 170,000 people and proved effective.
But the stockpile of the Merck vaccine is running dangerously low, and the WHO has already begun using smaller doses in an effort to ration supplies.
Mr Ilunga, however, argues that the J&J vaccine has not been proved effective and that using a second treatment would confuse already hostile villagers and fuel misinformation about the virus.
Fake news propagated by some community leaders has pushed people to refuse vaccinations or shun treatment, raising concerns introducing a second vaccine would stoke further conspiracy theories.
It is “fanciful to think that the new vaccine proposed by actors who have shown an obvious lack of ethics by voluntarily hiding important information from medical authorities, could have a significant impact on the control of the current outbreak,” Mr Ilunga said.
Earlier this month, the health ministry said that “due to a lack of sufficient scientific evidence on the efficacy and safety of other vaccines and the risk of confusing the population … no clinical trial of vaccines will be authorised during the current Ebola outbreak”.
J&J, for its part, insists that its Ebola vaccine has been tested on more than 6,000 people and is safe to use.
International donors including the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres have also urged the Congolese government to use the second vaccine, of which some 1.5 million doses are available.
This outbreak is the second deadliest on record after a West Africa epidemic in 2013-2016 infected 28,000 people and killed 11,300, mostly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
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