BLOG – My phone rings. I am at home in Kisangani (province of Tshopo) where I work as Head of UNICEF office for the neighboring provinces of Tshopo and Bas-Uélé. It’s 10:30 pm. It’s UNICEF Representative ai in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr. Tajudeen Oyewale, calling me. At this hour, a call from Dr. Tajudeen? It can only be a disaster. Indeed, this is one: there is Ebola in Likati, in the far north east of the country.
“there is Ebola in Likati”
“Olala!’’ That is all I can say when Tajudeen tells me that the suspected Hemorrhagic Fever Virus Ebola (FHVE) case we had heard of on May 6, 2017 was confirmed positive. My supervisor and Head of UNICEF Eastern Zone office in Goma, Thierry Dentice, texted me on WhatsApp, summarizing all our emotions when faced with the situation: “Ouch!“. The word Ebola awakens painful memories dating back to 2014: the tens of thousands of deaths of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia…and DRC.
For UNICEF, this is an emergency. Like an anthill, everyone engaged in the response to the epidemic, which this time burst into Likati, a locality located 160 km from Buta, capital of the province of Bas-Uélé.
In order to start sending much-needed assistance and inputs to Likati, the Health Minister in Kinshasa first had to comply with international health regulations through the official declaration of the epidemic. Dr. Oly Ilunga did so on May 11, 2017 on the national radio and television channel. In particular, the Minister called on the population not to panic. Indeed, this is the eighth epidemic of this nature in the DR; the national human resources have gained the experience and expertise needed to contain the disease.
It’s war. One more for the DRC which is already fighting on several other fronts in May 2017: the Greater Kasai, a wild poliovirus epidemic derived from the vaccine, internally displaced persons, persistent insecurity in the East, refugees from neighboring countries such as Central African Republic and South Sudan, the tense internal political situation … and now Ebola in Likati!
Ebola in Likati : a quick and coordinated response
Today, more than a month after assistance operations started in the epidemic zone, and thanks to the quick and coordinated response, we see light at the end of the tunnel as the situation stabilizes in Likati. A few days ago, all colleagues from the UNICEF DRC office participated in a teleconference about our work and commitment to children in this crisis. On this occasion, everyone recalled how he lived the Ebola emergency. Dr Tony Byamungu of UNICEF Survival section in Kinshasa spoke about working in the fight against Ebola in Likati, where he coordinated assistance and managed to deliver medicines to the health centers which did not have any.
As for me, I kept an eye from Buta, on the day-to-day management of my office in Kisangani and supervised the good flow of information, colleagues, material and equipment between Goma, Likati, Buta, Kisangani and Kinshasa. Each day, a phone meeting initiated by UNICEF National Office in Kinshasa under the coordination of Representative ai, Dr Tajudeen Oyewale and UNICEF Response Coordinator Dr Hamady Ba, brought together all the colleagues involved in the Response in Kinshasa, Goma, Kisangani and Likati. The daily call is an opportunity to review the implementation status of the UNICEF response plan to the Ebola virus, in the framework of the national response plan.
At the Government’s request, UNICEF coordinated the response in Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH); and communication with the population.
Among UNICEF response plan supporters was our colleague Dr. Pierre Bakatubia. The plan was designed to contribute to controlling and reducing both mortality and morbidity associated with Ebola in Bas-Uélé and to prevent it from spreading to other parts of the DRC. It also plans to strengthen health services in Likati health zone so that the region can manage the health needs of its population and fight potential risks of new Ebola epidemics.
A large-scale response
The response required to deploy colleagues in the field. Staff flew from Kinshasa, Matadi, Goma and Kisangani to Likati, the epidemic’s epicentre to assist and implement UNICEF response plan. Nelly Katende and Patrick Lonji, our logisticians, did their very best in ensuring that all inputs (GPS radios, inverters, VHF relays, motorcycles and accessories, toilet soaps, plastic buckets with taps, water purifiers, etc.) were properly sent by aircraft to Likati.
Jean-Marie Mulapu, our ICT colleague spared no effort to disentangle the tens of meters of electrical cables, so that the “matos” as he calls them (Bgan, GSM, etc.) are operational, enabling us to communicate on the right frequency, stay connected and respond “present” during teleconferences.
Communication media such as the posters and leaflets that Hervé Mwamba, Communication for Development (C4D) officer at the Kisangani office, sent from the beginning to the Bas-Uélé Provincial Health Division, greatly helped communication with communities. Farellia Tahina, Head of C4D at UNICEF DRC and C4D consultant Jean-Claude Nzengu both engaged in community awareness campaigns against Ebola in Buta.
Dr Félicien Molima, Planning Specialist in Goma, worked in Kisangani and Buta, coordinating assistance and providing valuable advice to colleagues in Kisangani and to the Bas-Uélé CPC subcommittees members.
Promoting public awareness
When Dieudonné Muhindo arrived in Likati, our WASH colleague in Kisangani was the first to go to the epidemic zone. He quickly set foot in the stirrup, so that WASH activities were effective and communities took ownership. Hand washing units have been installed in public places: markets, schools, churches, etc.
Astrid Nsuka, Communication for Development officer in Matadi, have involved in raising awareness amongst affected populations in Likati Health Zone so that they adopted life-saving practices, such as washing hands regularly with clean water and soap or ashes. In markets, churches and other public places, Astrid talked in Lingala with community leaders, chieftaincy and other group leaders in order to pass on the correct information to village chiefs and community members.
Morning, midday and evening… and sometimes at night, Yves Willemot, Head of Communication in Kinshasa, insisted that we sent him all the photos of eloquent activities in Buta and Likati, in order to document all the phases of our response to the Ebola epidemic in Bas-Uélé. Together with Dr. Hamady Ba, they regularly condensed UNICEF response in situation reports and other posts on digital platforms for the public and donors.
Responding in the field
Meanwhile, Kisangani office continued program activities with support from Aimé Dunia and Louis Khuwa who manages Operations and facilitated the departure to Likati of Dieudonné Muhindo , WASH Officer in our Kisangani office and other colleagues who followed him. There he quickly joined the Local Coordinating Committee (CLC) and was appointed “Chairman” of the WASH subcommittee. In collaboration with the partners, he installed hand washing stations at the two final primary education exams (TENAFEP) centers, the National Independent Electoral Centre’s (CENI) eight registration centers, distributed prevention posters, plastic buckets, chlorine, soap boxes, household gloves, etc. He also briefed the population in Likati health zone on waste management in healthcare, cleaning and disinfection, and helped setting up hygiene committees in health centers and stations. Jean-Marie Bofio relayed him during a one-and-a-half-day stopover, supporting the Kisangani office so that Dieudonné could catch up with the delay in finalizing the technical sheets in emergency.
Both in Buta and Kisangani, Djuma, Jean-Claude and Jonathan, our driver colleagues, “swallowed” every day the kilometers separating Bangboka airport and the UNICEF office in Kisangani, Buta airport and the city center, to ensure that both colleagues and equipment embarked on the helicopters linking Kisangani, Buta and Likati.
Results are visible, the epidemic is receding !
Like two peas in a pod, we all supported the intervention to fight ebola in Likati and surroundings, thanks to the good decisions made in time in Kinshasa and Goma. The results are visible, the epidemic is receding. For more than 21 days – a dangerous period of spread – there has been no new cases. In principle, we’ve passed the hardest part. But we will have to stay alert to deal with potential new epidemic cases in the future.
Ebola in Likati: more about the outbreak
Translated from French by Houda Agassim
Bibiane Ambongo is a Communications Specialist at UNICEF Kinshasa, where she has worked for many years. She is particularly concerned with presenting the DRC as a country which is moving forward and finding its feet. And if children are at the heart of it all, they just have to be taken by the hand so they can reveal their talents. And Heaven knows, they have plenty!
Bibiane Ambongo est Spécialiste communication à l’UNICEF Kinshasa où elle travaille depuis de nombreuses années. Donner l’image d’une RDC qui se cherche et qui avance la préoccupe. Alors, si les enfants sont au centre de cette dynamique, il faut absolument les prendre par la main pour qu’ils révèlent leurs talents. Et Dieu sait s’ils en ont !
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