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Doctors In Congo Threaten To Strike If Ebola Attacks Continue


Health care workers in the center of the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo say they may go on strike if the attacks on them do not stop. Threats and violent assaults have become a way of life for them. Late last week, two hospitals were attacked, and an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization was killed. Now these health care workers say if the government doesn't improve their security in one week, they will walk off the job. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has been following the story and joins us in the studio. Nurith, just describe the violence that these workers are facing on a daily basis.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, so listeners might have heard of some of these high-profile attacks on Ebola treatment centers that began in February. Two of them were attacked. But this violence actually goes a lot farther. The workers who are making the demands today are - there are 200 doctors and more than a thousand Congolese nurses at hospitals and health centers across this hot-spot city of Butembo. And they are really, actually, at the front line of the Ebola response because they're where the patients come in who are likely suspect cases, and they refer them to the treatment centers.

And because of years of civil war in this area, a lot of people don't trust the government. They think Ebola is a scam or that it's a disease that's been brought to make money off of the population. So when these health workers refer suspect cases to the treatment centers, they then get targeted by the community. There are threats. There's even been some killings.

And then on top of that, the Ebola response has some of the command centers at these hospitals, and two of those were attacked last week. That's when that doctor with the W - with the World Health Organization was killed. So yesterday, they all marched - all these health workers marched in the streets, and they presented the mayor with this demand and a threatened strike.

MARTIN: So what exactly do they want to happen? I mean, what would it take to prevent this strike?

AIZENMAN: Well, I spoke to the head of the medical association that's representing all of these workers. And he says that, you know, the specifics of what it would take to end the violence - he leaves that to the mayor and other authorities. But it's a difficult problem because it's not just that they're being threatened at their place of work. What they describe is that, you know, gunmen will come to their homes looking for them. And then it's also a controversial issue - whether you should put armed guards at a health facility - because it basically sends the message that health workers are somehow part of this ongoing conflict with the government.

MARTIN: So what has the government done? I mean, how are they responding?

AIZENMAN: Well, apparently, the mayor says he's taking them seriously. And I spoke with a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, and they say that they do understand where these workers are coming from. I mean, they're sympathetic.

MARTIN: What are the implications if the strike goes ahead?

AIZENMAN: Well, they're saying that for now, there are these two Ebola treatment centers where people with Ebola are actually cared for, and those would still stay open in a strike. But every hospital in the area, every health center in the area - all those workers would stay home. And that's, you know, terrible for just the health of the population. This is an area where a lot of people have malaria, very serious diseases, acute malnutrition.

And then it's very serious for the Ebola outbreak because this is the place where a lot of patients are initially identified. And as a result of the violence, there's already been a slowdown in key activities like identifying people who've had contacts and vaccinating them. And we've seen a surge of new cases, and we're already up to 1,400 people infected.

MARTIN: NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman for us this morning. Nurith, thank you. We appreciate it.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.