GENEVA - Medical aid group Doctors Without Borders says it has stopped Ebola prevention operations and other services in a town in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The group said it took the action because of the presence of armed government forces inside several health facilities in Biakato, which is in Ituri province, just north of North Kivu. Both provinces are struggling to control the epidemic.
MSF, known as Doctors Without Borders, says it had no choice. The group says it had to leave Biakato because the presence of military troops inside its health facilities goes against its principles of neutrality and impartiality.
The deputy program manager for Emergencies Programs, Trish Newport, tells VOA the problem surfaced at the end of November following attacks by armed groups. Three Ebola responders were killed, and many others were injured.
In the wake of the violence, she says the government in Kinshasa sent security forces to the area to protect the Ebola operation. Newport says she understands the need to protect civilians and medical personnel. But, she notes the presence of the armed government forces discourages people from seeking medical care.
“There are people that would not go to a health care facility because they are afraid of armed forces, because they have a different history with armed forces…and we have always said that health care facilities should not be armed," said Newport. "There should not be armed people within them. And, people should be able to have access to health care facilities that are neutral.”
Doctors Without Borders has been working in Biakato since 2016, supporting the Ministry of Health. Initially, its activities were focused on assisting victims of sexual violence. Since the start of the Ebola epidemic, it has expanded its operations to manage suspected and confirmed cases of the deadly disease.
Over the past three years, Newport says Doctors Without Borders has built a strong, trusting relationship with the community. So, the decision to close the operation was very difficult to make.
“Biakato was really a place where we worked very closely with the community. We were not just focusing on Ebola," said Newport. "We really listened to the community, asking them what their priorities were. For instance, the community said at one point, we do not understand why you just respond to Ebola. We do not even have access to water here. And, so we worked with the community to build wells in the community, so that they did have access…What we were also doing was providing primary health care, providing pediatric, hospital care.”
Newport says MSF’s departure is permanent. She says the organization’s 18-bed Ebola treatment center and all other health activities will continue to be run by the health ministry.