May 21, 2018

Schools on alert to prevent spread of Ebola outbreak in DRC

A boy washes his hands while other children queue behind him at the Slipway primary school in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, during the 2015 Ebola outbreak

Photo credit: UNICEF / Irwin

Billy Briggs

Education in emergencies writer

Children are being taught how to protect themselves from the deadly virus, which left five million children out of school during the 2014 outbreak.

Hundreds of community workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo are being mobilised to teach schoolchildren how they can protect themselves from Ebola.

A vaccine is also being distributed today in the city of Mbandaka to try to stop the spread of the deadly virus, which has claimed 26 lives since the outbreak began earlier this month.

The virus has spread from rural areas of the country to the northwestern city, which is a major transport hub on the River Congo.

When Ebola swept through West Africa in 2014 - affecting mainly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - more than 11,000 people died and five million children were out of school for months.

As part of the prevention campaign in the DRC, children will be advised what they can do to help prevent the disease spreading. Schools in Mbandaka are instructing students not to greet each other by shaking hands or kissing.

Hand washing points have been installed in 50 targeted schools in affected areas of Mbandaka, with equipment to be given to 72 schools in nearby Bikoro.

Children from Guinea wash their hands before entering school in Forecariah during the height of the Ebola outbreak

Photo credit: UNICEF / Opferman

Schools will also be given thermometers to monitor the health of children.

“It is crucial that communities understand how to protect themselves at home and in public places, especially in health facilities and schools”, said Dr Gianfranco Rotigliano, UNICEF Representative in the DRC. 

“Experience in previous outbreaks has shown that when we engage communities in prevention efforts, we stand the best chance of containing the disease.”

Ebola is an infectious illness that causes internal bleeding and often proves fatal. It can spread rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid and its early flu-like symptoms are not always obvious.

UNICEF and the government of DRC are hoping community workers will play a crucial role in providing people with information on a new Ebola vaccination campaign. The experimental vaccine proved effective when used in limited trials when the epidemic struck West Africa in 2014 and continued until 2016.

The World Health Organization said it has "strong reason to believe that the outbreak can be brought under control".

More than 150,000 children are already missing school in DRC because of conflict 

Photo credit: Oxfam

At an emergency meeting last week, WHO experts said that "the conditions for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern have not currently been met".

Nine neighbouring countries, including the Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, have been advised they are at high risk of the virus spreading. The Congo river carries significant regional traffic across porous borders.

The WHO said: “Interventions underway provide strong reason to believe that the outbreak can be brought under control, including: enhanced surveillance, establishment of case management facilities, deployment of mobile laboratories, expanded engagement of community leaders, establishment of an air-bridge, and other planned interventions.”

“It is particularly important there should be no international travel or trade restrictions. Neighbouring countries should strengthen preparedness and surveillance. During the response, safety and security of staff should be ensured, and protection of responders and national and international staff should prioritised. 

More than 22,000 children in West Africa lost at least one parent during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, according to the United Nations.

It was the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak since the virus first appeared in 1976 and there were more cases and deaths than in all the others combined. 

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