Harvard University researchers said that public mistrust in health workers and authorities is now the biggest obstacle to thwarting the epidemic, with many refusing vaccines, resisting treatment and hiding symptoms. Those who believed rumours that Ebola is a hoax and does not exist were 15 times less likely to seek formal medical help and five times less likely to accept vaccination, found the study, based on 961 interviews carried out in September. Ebola is a severe and often fatal disease that causes haemorrhaging, fever and bloody vomiting and spreads through direct contact with body fluids.
While Ebola victims are not contagious until they develop symptoms, their bodies remain infectious after death.
The virus has infected some 1,022 people and killed around 639 in eastern DR Congo since August, according to the health ministry.
In recent weeks, there has been on average eight new cases per day, an uptick that has sparked concern among aid agencies.
The researchers found that trust in public authorities had already been eroding in the hotspot cities of Beni and Butembo before Ebola struck local populations there, mostly due to decades of armed conflict and poor governance.
Patrick Vinck, the study’s lead author from Harvard Medical School, “It’s been three years now that we saw a declining level of trust in those actors, and the Ebola crisis comes on top of that and accelerates the distrust.
“In some ways, we are now paying the consequences of many years of lack of interest and focus on this issue.”
Community resistance is said to be highest in and around Butembo, the latest epicentre of the second-deadliest outbreak in history.
Jean-Philippe Marcoux, country director for the international aid group Mercy Corps, warned: “We need to – as much as possible and rapidly – scale down the presence of security forces with response teams, because it is creating more harm than good right now.”
Rebels have an active and open presence in the area and health workers are often escorted by police and soldiers for security, which makes villagers all the more suspicious, aid workers have warned.
Attacks on clinics and responders have become common. The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was forced to suspend its Ebola activities in DR Congo last month after one of its clinics was torched in an arson attack.
MSF’s international president Joanne Liu has since urged the Congolese authorities to de-militarise the Ebola response, warning the disease would continue to run amok unless the community trusted the authorities and were treated humanely.
Mrs Liu told reporters in Geneva: “The existing atmosphere can only be described as toxic.”
She added that aid workers were increasingly seen as the enemy and that the presence of security and police forces only served to deepen suspicions Ebola is being used as a political tool.
Mrs Lieu said: “There is a lot of militarisation of the Ebola response.
“Using police to force people into complying with health measures is not only unethical, it’s totally counterproductive. The communities are not the enemy.”
The world’s worst epidemic of Ebola killed more than 11,300 people in West Africa from 2013 to 2016.
DR Congo has been trapped in violence for more than two decades, and the east has multiple armed groups all fighting for control of the mineral-rich land.