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Response Is Swift To Try To Contain Congo's Ebola Outbreak


The world has begun to respond to the Ebola outbreak in Congo. The World Health Organization announced plans to start vaccinating people tomorrow and says the crisis has not yet reached the stage of declaring an international health emergency. We've been able to reach Karsten Voigt. He's operations manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross. He's in the capital city of Kinshasa. Thanks very much for being with us.

KARSTEN VOIGT: Thank you very much.

SIMON: Mr. Voigt, I understand you've just returned from five days in what they call the hot zone. What did you - what did you see?

VOIGT: So what I saw was that the international response is on the ground. The response mechanisms have kicked in. The finance mechanisms have kicked in.

SIMON: Tell us about the work you're doing with people around burials because I understand there's a particular concern there.

VOIGT: Yes. Well, I think there are two specific challenges when you talk about burial in an Ebola outbreak. The one thing is the medical challenge because, of course, a dead body has a very high viral count. So it is very dangerous to touch the body or to move around in the house where this person has died. So the volunteers, Red Cross volunteers, who conduct this work have to be protected. They wear their protective kits, and they have been trained on how to deal with this body.

The second challenge then is more psychological and culturally because for the people who have lost a loved one and who have their traditional ways of conducting a burial, it is very difficult to accept Red Cross volunteers coming in dressed in full protective gear and treating the body with so much caution. This is a lot of work which needs to be done, the company, the technical team, in preparing the communities that these type of burials will have to be conducted in order to contain the outbreak.

SIMON: And of course they want to show love and reverence.

VOIGT: Exactly. Exactly. So in many cultures, you would have the tradition of washing the body, which means many people would be actually touching the body, of hugging the body a farewell, and all these things cannot happen in an Ebola outbreak. And there is always the risk if the technical work of the burial is not accompanied by strong community sensitization that people will not report that somebody has died of Ebola and that they will follow the burial rites in secret. And that, of course, is very dangerous.

SIMON: Mr. Voigt, what are the next steps you and the Red Cross and other agencies can take?

VOIGT: We have the international experts, which have started coming in and to continue coming in, and it's not the first Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's the ninth outbreak since the disease was detected in the '70s. So there is a lot of experience within the health system of the country and also within the Congolese Red Cross of dealing with such outbreaks. So I believe the technical capacity of dealing with this is there. The challenges are - for instance, logistically, it's a very remote area with villages which are very difficult to reach. So there are these things which make things difficult.

SIMON: Karsten Voigt of the International Federation of the Red Cross, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

VOIGT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.