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Experimental Ebola Vaccine Rollout Hampered by Civil War

WHO officials considering armed escorts in a bid to stop the latest outbreak in Africa.

A recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)—the country’s 10th in the past 46 years—has health officials struggling not just against the disease, but war as well. In the past week, at least 43 people in that country’s northern Kivu and Ituri provinces have shown symptoms of the disease, and 36 have already died. Aid workers and World Health Organization personnel have already begun administering a new, experimental vaccine—known as rVSV-ZEBOV—to some in the affected areas, but progress has been hampered by the instability and increased sectarian violence in the region.

In response, the DRC government has offered military escorts to protect those WHO workers administering the vaccines. That arrangement presents its own risks, however. Using armed guards affiliated with the ruling government can exacerbate tensions, endanger aid officials, and make it harder to build trust with local population when Ebola outbreaks occur in areas controlled by insurgents. Aid groups like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) typically refuse such escorts and a MSF spokesperson in the DRC said his group will travel without armed escorts.

Getting to an Ebola outbreak area quickly and administering aid is a key step in preventing its spread. This step is particularly important with regard to this latest outbreak, since war and famine have displaced nearly a million people from Kivu and Ituri in the past decade and the region’s vast numbers of refugees mean the disease can travel and spread elsewhere much more rapidly.