Congo’s Ebola response threatened by conspiracy theories, rumors

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By Gabe Joselow and Linda Givetash

People who have contracted Ebola are opting to die at home rather than seek treatment as conspiracy theories fuel distrust of the government and of health workers grappling with the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the workers and aid groups.

Nearly 20 new cases of the deadly illness are being identified daily in two northeast provinces of the country. Both areas are opposition strongholds where political tensions run high.

Many of the victims are being discovered outside treatment centers after they refuse to seek help, officials said. The epidemic has left more than 700 dead and affected more than 1,000 people.

In addition to combating a lethal virus, health workers are having to dispel rumors that the disease is manufactured and that the millions of dollars spent on the response are part of a money-making scheme derisively referred to as the “Ebola business.”

“We have lost the trust of the community,” Tariq Riebl of the nonprofit International Rescue Committee told NBC News from Goma.

A study conducted in September, less than two months into the outbreak, found that 25 percent of people surveyed in the affected areas did not believe Ebola was real, while 36 percent thought it was fabricated to destabilize the region.

“It’s all about money, that we’re getting bonuses for cases we find, that prolonging the response helps the business side,” Riebl said, listing some of the lies that have been spreading among local communities.

Health workers inside the “red zone” of an Ebola treatment center in Butembo.John Wessels / AFP – Getty Images

Anifa Vahavi is a demographic researcher working in Butembo, which is one of the worst-affected areas.

She has encountered skepticism about Ebola’s existence and origins, and questions about why aid workers take extra precautions when treating it compared to malaria or cholera.

Ebola treatment centers established by the central government in conjunction with international aid groups have been met with suspicion. Designed to isolate and treat suspected cases of Ebola and staffed by health workers wearing bulky “space suits,” the centers come with an increased presence of police and military forces.

Some people in Butembo even believe that “when you go there they inject you with the disease,” according to Vahavi, 30, who collects data for a Congolese nonprofit.