The World Health Organization warns that gains made in tackling the Ebola epidemic in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo are being threatened by ongoing insecurity in the region.
As of Dec. 10, WHO reported 3,340 cases of Ebola, including 2,210 deaths.
Over the last week, 27 new confirmed cases of Ebola were reported from four health zones in North Kivu and Ituri provinces. This marks a substantial increase over the weekly average of seven new cases recorded during the previous three weeks, according to WHO.
Michel Yao, head of WHO's on-the-ground operations for the Ebola outbreak, blames the rise in cases on attacks by armed groups, which are preventing health care workers from reaching vulnerable communities.
"This is due to the fact that when we cannot access the community … we cannot perform surveillance activities including vaccination, that has been one of the key innovations that help us really to stop the spread out of this country toward the others," he said.
Human Rights Watch and WHO say more than 100 armed groups are fighting in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, and some have attacked Ebola treatment facilities.
Since the beginning of the year, eight health care workers — including one WHO staff member — have been killed. Because of heightened insecurity, WHO relocated 49 non-essential staff from the Ebola-hit region late last month.
When the Ebola outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, 2018, the deadly virus was circulating in 29 health zones, averaging more than 120 new cases of the disease every week. Yao says significant progress in tackling the disease has been made since then.
He told VOA that in the last few weeks, Ebola cases have been reported in only four health zones — Mabalako, Mandima, Beni and Oicha.
"This is actually where we need to ensure access to finish the job," he said. "Unfortunately, it is in this area where we are facing insecurity. This area is a mainly rural area. ... (In) the big cities, the outbreak is more or less controlled. So, we remain with this rural area, but it is difficult to reach for security reasons."
Yao says he is confident the outbreak can be brought under control if safe access to the area can be ensured.