Disclosing how much funding the UK is committing to fighting Ebola in Democratic Republic of Congo may put a “target on the head” of those responding to the outbreak, MPs were told yesterday.
Harriet Baldwin, minister for Africa, was giving evidence to the international development select committee when she said that she did not want to say how much money the UK has committed to battling the outbreak since it was first declared last August.
The previous day International Development Secretary Rory Stewart made a statement in the House of Commons where he announced more funding to the response but did not say how much the government would give.
He said: “Today I am announcing new funding to help tackle the crisis. I can also confirm I will be putting more UK experts into crucial roles in the response. I am also calling on allies to follow the UK’s example.”
Ms Baldwin told MPs that the government of DRC had asked donors not to disclose exact amounts because of the potential harm that could come to responders in this poverty- and conflict-riven part of the country.
“We have been told by the government of DRC that because this is a very poor area they believe mention some of the amounts of money puts a target on the head of responders,” she said.
She would only say that "the UK has been one of the leading contributors to that response”.
The latest data from the DRC ministry of health shows that there have been 1,847 cases of the disease, including 1,223 deaths since the outbreak was first declared.
Experts are concerned that the outbreak – the second biggest the world has ever seen – is failing to be brought under control with high levels of violence coupled with mistrust and suspicion hampering the response.
A quarter of people in the region believe the Ebola virus does not actually exist and a third think it was fabricated for financial gain. While efforts to build trust have been ramped up in recent weeks, critics say mistrust has been fuelled by a sudden influx of money and resources to an area which was largely ignored for decades.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, told this week’s World Health Assembly that a lack of access to those most affected was hampering the response.
"TheEbola outbreak in DRC is still ongoing – not because we don’t have the tools or skills we need. We have demonstrated that we know how to stop Ebola. It is still ongoing on because we do not have the sustained access to communities that we need to finish the job,” he said.
There is also frustration that other countries are not stepping up to help. Yolande Wright, senior Ebola virus disease lead at the Department for International Development who gave evidence alongside Ms Baldwin, said others were beginning to provide assistance.
“We are a leading donor but we are pushing the international community to come forward. Germany has stepped up, Sweden is taking a mission there next week and at least two others are coming forward,” she said.
Ms Wright added that because of the complex environment in which the outbreak was taking place – there are more than 100 armed groups operating and many different ethnic groups – it was important that the response was able to adapt to local circumstances.
“The UK has been a leader in pushing the international community to adapt,” she said.
Examples of this include working with local radio stations to make programmes about the disease and commissioning a local pop group to write a song, she said.
Ensuring safe burials has been an important factor in stopping the spread of the disease as a dead body is still infectious. However, burials have been a source of tension because bodies are put in a bag and cannot be touched.
New body bags have been introduced with a clear plastic window so that relatives can see their loved one, said Ms Wright. And family members are encouraged to put on protective equipment so they can take part in the burial ceremony, she added.
There have been more than 100 attacks on health workers since January, the WHO said earlier this month but there have been concerns that responders have taken too heavy handed an approach, forcing patients to comply with treatment and other procedures.
“It’s a really important point to make the point about the right of health workers to be protected but not to coerce people into complying with behaviour,” she said.
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