The Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world's second-largest outbreak of the disease ever recorded, may finally be coming to an end. On March 3, 2020, Semida Masika was discharged from a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola treatment center in Beni, in North Kivu province. She was the last patient with a confirmed case of Ebola. If there are no new cases, the epidemic could be declared over by mid-April. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends waiting two full incubation periods—42 days—after the last person tests negative a second time before declaring the end of the outbreak.
While this was a milestone moment in the outbreak, it is too soon to celebrate. And even when the outbreak is officially declared over, should we celebrate then? Ever since the outbreak was first declared on August 1, 2018, there has been a massive international response—known as the Riposte—aimed at bringing it under control. Here, Trish Newport, emergency coordinator for MSF’s Ebola response in DRC, looks at some of the problems associated with the Riposte and warns that we must learn from our mistakes to better manage future outbreaks.
“We’re being attacked in the Ebola treatment center!” This is what I heard when I picked up my phone on February 27, last year. I was in Geneva, having just returned from DRC, where I had coordinated MSF’s response to the Ebola outbreak. The person calling me was in the 96-bed Butembo Ebola treatment center (ETC) as armed men forced their way through the main gate and opened fire. When they stopped firing their guns, they set the treatment center on fire.
At the time of the attack, more than 50 patients were in the ETC. All of them fled. The 60 MSF staff working in the ETC also fled. Staff and patients hid together in nearby buildings and in the surrounding forest. It was terrifying for everyone involved.
Because MSF could no longer ensure the safety of our patients and our staff, we evacuated all our teams from Butembo and the surrounding area on the day following the attack. It was a hard decision, but we had no choice.
“My priority is not Ebola—that is your priority"
I asked one of my Congolese colleagues why there was so much anger directed at the humanitarian response to Ebola. This was her reply:
"My husband was killed in a massacre in Beni. At that time, all I wanted was some organization to come and protect us from the killings, but no international organization came. I have had three children die of malaria. No international organization has ever come to work in this area to make sure we have health care or clean water. But now Ebola arrives and all the organizations come, because Ebola gives them money. If you cared about us, you would ask us what our priorities are. My priorities are security, and making sure my children don't die from malaria or diarrhea. My priority is not Ebola—that is your priority."
So we agreed that from then on, MSF would listen to and respond to the health priorities of the population and only set up activities with the full backing of the community.