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Lives on the line

By Paul Mpoyi Bulongo

On 5 May 1995 the World Health Organization announced that the Ebola virus had struck in Kikwit, the second largest town of the Bandundu province in south-western Zaire. In the space of a few weeks the epidemic had killed more than 200 people, including five volunteers of the Zaire Red Cross, which had immediately set to work to evacuate the sick, bury the dead and warn the population of the risks of contagion.

“I’d rather catch AIDS,” declared a survivor when questioned at the Kikwit general hospital. “It doesn’t kill you as fast as this disease does.” Debatable though it may be, this statement reflects the dread with which the Ebola haemorrhagic fever virus is regarded. At present no vaccine exists. The virus has struck with deadly effects in the past in Sudan and Kenya and, in 1976, in the Yambuku region in the Zairian province near the equator.

Early symptoms – high fever, headache and pains in the joints and muscles – appear between five and ten days after contamination. If the patient does not receive immediate and effective treatment, these are followed by severe haemorrhaging, kidney and heart failure and, in 50 to 90 per cent of cases, death. The infection is transmitted through contact with a victim’s body fluids or through handling an infected person’s body. Contamination from infected needles is almost always fatal. In Kikwit the death rate was as high as 80 out of 100 people affected.


Concerted action

From the very start of the epidemic, the Zaire Red Cross was closely involved, with the support of the Federation, in the operation coordinated by the International Scientific and Technical Commission. After carrying out an assessment mission, the Federation launched an appeal to the international community for funds to implement a plan of action and set up a crisis committee comprising members of the Zaire Red Cross and two Federation delegates.

The Red Cross’s operation was carried out under the supervision of an epidemiologist in two phases. To begin with, the numerous first-aiders and volunteers who had taken part in the emergency programme in the absence of any coordination from the International Commission were disbanded. Then, in a second phase, three main programmes were set up: hygiene and sanitation measures, efforts to alert the population and social welfare activities.

Under the first programme, 12 first-aiders working under the direction of Jacques Katshitshi, head of the Medical Division at the Zaire Red Cross, went about the city taking the sick to hospital and burying the dead. Generous support was provided by the Danish, Swedish, Chinese and Spanish Red Cross Societies, which contributed a vehicle, protective clothing, disinfectant and medical supplies respectively.

The second programme went into action when a rise in the number of victims was found to be linked to unprotected handling of the dead bodies. Also coordinated by Dr Katshitshi, its purpose was to raise awareness among the population of Kikwit about the manner in which the disease is transmitted and what preventive measures can be taken. Posters and leaflets in the four local languages were produced and relayed through a network of 15 first-aid posts. In this way the programme was able to reach 2,000 inhabitants, including 290 Red Cross first-aiders.

The aim of the third programme was to help people who had been cut off from their usual social environment by the epidemic to resume their place in the community by explaining that they were not carriers of the virus and therefore presented no risk of contagion. Following a survey to identify the most vulnerable individuals, homes were disinfected, food was distributed and destitute people and families and social outcasts were visited under this programme, which was coordinated by Félicien Mudila Mbinga, head of the social welfare unit of the International Commission.

In parallel with these activities, the Federation, the Zaire Red Cross and the ICRC jointly organised an information seminar in July on international humanitarian law and the work of the Movement for 20 local journalists. Later in July, first-aid instructors attended a course in Kikwit on the prevention of epidemic diseases.

Finally, the Red Cross published an information brochure on the Ebola virus, which was presented to the press in November at the National Society headquarters in Kinshasa. The National Society’s information service also produced, in cooperation with the Federation, a documentary on the Movement’s humanitarian operation in Kikwit. The film showed how, in response to the anguish of a community afflicted by this cruel disease, the Zaire Red Cross and the Federation succeeded in pooling their human, financial and material resources to mount an operation combining preventive action, training and assistance.

The price of hope

This effort on the part of the Movement, and the Zaire Red Cross in particular, took a heavy toll: five volunteers lost their lives in the first few weeks of the epidemic for want of adequate protective equipment. Adolphe Kasanji, 43, was the first to give his life for the universal endeavour to protect human life and dignity. One after the other, Mandungu Kisinga, Mukila Ngungi, Kilumbu Nzamba and Kamandunga succumbed to the disease while carrying out their humanitarian mission.

But their sacrifice was not in vain and has helped to boost the prestige of the National Society. “Through this operation,” says Félicien Mudila Mbinga “we have regained the confidence of the Zairean people and restored the credibility of the Red Cross. We have even recruited many new members. Today, in Kikwit and the surrounding regions, the Red Cross is once again a symbol of hope.”


Paul Mpoyi Bulongo
Paul Mpoyi Bulongo is National Coordinator for Information, Education and Communication at the Zaire Red Cross.


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