After 26 confirmed deaths have been attributed to the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Catholic Relief Services has been working to combat the deadly outbreak through educational and financial assistance.

“CRS is helping contain the Ebola outbreak by supporting our local Caritas partners in the affected region,” said Katherine Overcamp, head of programs for CRS in DRC, who is based in Kinshasa.

“Staff and volunteers are promoting accurate and timely information that helps people to take precautions and reduce their risk of contracting or transmitting the virus,” Overcamp told CNA.

The first case of Ebola in the nation was reported May 8 in rural areas of Equateur province near the town of Bikoro. The virus has since spread to Mbandaka, the provincial capital, which lies on the Congo River upstream of Kinshasa, the Congolese capital.

CRS, an international relief agency which provides assistance to people in need in more than 100 countries, has been working with Caritas Mbandaka, both remotely and in Kinshasa during the outbreak.

Caritas Mbandaka has been responding to Ebola by hosting sensitization campaigns to reduce the fear surrounding the virus, while also organizing public messaging with the goal of Ebola education. They also ensure that those with Ebola symptoms seek medical care and testing immediately.

“Ebola is a dangerous disease that can easily slip over national and continental borders. That’s why it’s imperative at this stage to raise awareness about the outbreak in as many communities as we can, as quickly as possible,” Overcamp said.

CRS was also active in responding to previous Ebola outbreaks. During the 2014-16 epidemic in West Africa, CRS worked to fight the outbreak by educating local communities and dispelling myths about the virus.

“CRS played a critical role in minimizing the impact of Ebola on the health systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone following the 2014 outbreak,” Overcamp noted.

“Our partners are extremely valuable in an outbreak because they are embedded in the countries’ most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” she continued, adding, “the same is true here in the DRC.”

The rapid spread of the virus has caused some alarm as to the possibility of a more widespread outbreak, as many cities are connected by river. The World Health Organization has warned that the chances of Ebola spreading within Congo is “very high,” according to the Associated Press.

In an effort to fight the virus, President Joseph Kabila approved an increase in Ebola emergency funds to more than $4 million. Additionally, the nation’s health ministry announced that it would begin administering Ebola vaccines in Mbandaka May 21 in an effort to contain the outbreak.
The vaccine, which is an experimental antidote to the Ebola virus that proved successful during a similar outbreak in West Africa a few years ago, will be administered first to medical staff and those in close contact with patients who are suspected to have the Ebola virus.

More than 4,000 doses of the vaccine are in the country, and it will initially be administered to approximately 600 people in Mbandaka. One of the major challenges surrounding the vaccine will be to keep it in properly cold conditions in the DRC’s tropical climate.

Early diagnosis and treatment is the best solution for patients who have contracted the Ebola virus. Overcamp said that even the initial symptoms, such as fever and nausea, can mimic less serious conditions and people often do not take precautions until it is too late.

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pains and occasional bleeding and is primarily spread through contact with bodily fluids. The disease is fatal in up to 90 percent of cases.

Ebola has currently claimed the lives of 26 people within DRC, with an additional 21 confirmed cases and another 25 suspected patients.
Despite the growing number of Ebola victims within DRC, Overcamp said her past experience has shown her that international collaboration can effectively overcome a dangerous outbreak.

“Our experience with the Ebola outbreak in West African taught us that while the presence of the disease can cause massive damage and even worldwide panic, if the international aid community works together with the government and local partners, there is hope that an outbreak can be stopped in its tracks.”