Ebola spreads to area with strong United Methodist ties

Ebola has been confirmed in South Kivu, home to three United Methodist districts. This is the third province to be affected by the deadly virus since the outbreak began in Congo a little more than a year ago.

Provincial Governor Theo Ngwabije Kasi confirmed two positive test cases have been discovered in the territory of Mwenga, in the village of Kilungutwe.

“The victim is dead; this is a woman. One of her children (an infant) is declared positive but alive. He is under care,” Kasi said, after a crisis meeting held by the response team, government officials and religious authorities in Bukavu on Aug. 16.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 2,700 confirmed cases of Ebola since the outbreak was declared Aug. 1, 2018, and more than 1,900 people have died. It is the second-largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history, despite the use of a vaccine; the largest killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa from 2013 to 2016.

Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda urged United Methodists living in East Congo not to panic, adding that authorities are working diligently to end the epidemic. He also vowed to continue the church’s awareness campaign.

“I will not keep quiet as long as this sickness will be killing people in my episcopal area,” Unda said. “I will use all means available for sensitization of the population in the area I manage, and I believe in the power of sensitization.”

In an Aug. 18 UMConnect text message, Unda preached proper hygiene to church members.

“I want a hand-washing kit in the front of each local church. I need church members to wash their hands and avoid touching and greeting each other by shaking hands during this period. Make sure you take care of all hygiene recommendations to fight Ebola,” the message said.

Unda said he is thankful to the church’s communications agency, United Methodist Communications, for providing support via the UMConnect system. The church has been sending out at least two messages per day since the Ebola outbreak began. 

“We have sent hundreds of messages to millions of people using UMConnect,” Unda said.

The bishop said he also is grateful to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries’ Global Health unit for “sending people with experience in fighting Ebola to Goma, in order to lead sensitization works and even risk their lives for our people.”

Megan Klingler, a primary health-care specialist with the Global Health unit, arrived in Congo this week. The Montana nurse will visit six cities during her three-week trip to conduct training sessions to help stop the spread of Ebola by healthcare workers, providers and family caregivers.

The sessions will be presented to the East Congo Health Board, healthcare workers, church leadership and community leaders. One of the goals is to break down myths about Ebola that are keeping people in the region from seeking treatment.

Laurie W. Felder, director for the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s International Disaster Response, said UMCOR-supported disaster management coordinators from all of the episcopal areas in the country have been invited to attend the training.

She said the East Congo disaster management coordinator has been asked to lead efforts to disseminate the information to community members.

Last month, the World Health Organization warned that the outbreak is a public health emergency of international concern after the spread of Ebola to Goma.

How to help

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Goma, a city of almost 2 million people, is considered the gateway to the rest of the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than 15,000 people cross the border from Goma to Rwanda every day.

Unda said he is concerned that if the work of the church is not done well, the outbreak could reach other countries, as well as nearby episcopal areas, such as Central Congo and North Katanga.

Fears of the disease’s spread led Rwanda to temporarily shut a border crossing this month.

According to The New York Times, Rwanda’s Health Ministry said the closing was a “slowdown” after “measures were put in place to reinforce screening procedures and public safety at entry points,” but it maintained that the border was open.

Mbilizi Bonane, president of United Methodist Women in Bukavu and a shopkeeper, said she routinely travels to Rwanda for commercial activities.

"I had to go to Rwanda but I was repressed. This situation puts us in confusion because it makes it impossible to carry out our activities,” she said.

Dr. Claude Watukalusu, supervisor of health for the Kivu Conference, lives in Uvira on the border with Burundi. He praised the “measures taken by the four countries (Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Congo) to strengthen the collaboration in order to fight against the Ebola virus disease.”

Dr. Richard Lesthu, a member of the health council in East Congo, said that while the Ebola vaccine and new experimental antibody-based treatments are good news, it’s too soon to celebrate.

He urged people to remain vigilant.

“Do not yield to the enthusiasm of triumphalism because the road is still long,” he said.  “The message of fighting the Ebola virus disease remains intact until the end of the epidemic.”

Kituka Lolonga is the Kivu Conference communicator. Omadjela is field project manager, Congo Central Conference, United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Vicki Brown, news editor, newsdesk@umcom.org or 615-742-5469. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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