In a remote region where bridges are often little more than a couple of felled trees and motorcycles are the fastest way to get around, a network of solar-powered radios is doing double duty: Warning of imminent extremist attacks, as well as keeping tabs on Ebola outbreaks.
The network of FM and high-frequency radios in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been growing since 2012 with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, according to aid workers. It came in handy in May, when Ebola killed at least three people in an extremely remote region where there are almost no roads, no telephones and no internet.
Two days after the first case was confirmed on May 11, radio operators started transmitting warnings, Catholic Relief Services said.
“There is an epidemic of Ebola,” they said. “It is real and it is near our villages. If a member of your family or neighbor in our community has fever, fatigue, vomits blood, has diarrhea with blood, or blood coming from the nose, do not touch it and notify the nearest health team.”
The broadcasts include advice on wearing protective equipment.
“We were the first to report the outbreak of the disease to the humanitarian community,” said Driss Moumane of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), who designed the system.
“It’s the only option now,” Moumane told NBC News.
“If this project did not exist, people would literally be dying and nobody would know about it until it became a huge crisis. Or nobody would know about it ever.”
The area is under constant threat of violence from rebels and, most frighteningly, the Lord’s Resistance Army — a brutal extremist group that targets villages, kidnapping people and leaving behind burning destruction.
There is no one to defend these rural hamlets.
“The government either does not exist or does not have resources to care for its own people. It’s a fragile state environment,” Moumane said. Villagers are on their own. “They can only count on themselves.”
CRS came up with the idea of at least warning villagers when the Lord’s Resistance Army was headed their way. The group called the project "Secure Empowered Connected Communities" and has distributed 4,000 radios so far, Moumane said.
They distributed either FM or high-frequency radios to each village, along with specially designed horizontal wire antennas that cannot be seen from a distance. A warning gives residents time to dismantle the radios, grab belongings and hide until the raiders are gone.
“When the Lord’s Resistance Army goes to that village, there is nobody for them kidnap,” Moumane said.
Gradually, the system has grown and evolved. Now, along with intermittent updates on movements of the attackers, the network also broadcast music and entertainment in local languages and in French.
“Communities are very, very excited because there is no entertainment in the region,” Moumane said.
USAID helps pay for radios as part of a program to train local journalists and support local radio stations.
Moumane estimates that between 1,000 and 1,500 villages are now connected by the network, which covers an area 15 times the size of neighboring Rwanda.
The World Health Organization said there are confirmed cases of Ebola in the remote northern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, along with 15 probable or suspected cases.
Health workers in the region are keeping an eye on 72 people who had physical contact with the patients to make sure they don’t develop signs of Ebola, which is transmitted by infected bodily fluids such as blood and diarrhea.
Ebola can kill between 50 percent and 90 percent of victims, depending on the strain and what kind of medical care they get. There’s no licensed medical treatment but good medical care can lower the fatality rate and careful precautions can prevent the spread of the virus.
Most important is careful burial of people killed by Ebola, because their corpses remain infectious.
Now, said Moumane, Catholic Relief Services is using the radio network to educate villagers about these important precautions and providing information about Ebola’s symptoms.
The DRC has approved the use of an experimental Ebola vaccine and is considering using an approach called ring vaccination to control the outbreak, if it looks like it’s continuing. This approach, which was used to eradicate smallpox, involved vaccinating people in contact with known cases and, sometimes, their contacts.
It’s not so easy, says Moumane. Although the region is remote, people move around a lot.
“It’s a very porous border,” he said. There’s a civil war going on in neighboring Central African Republic, and Moumane said an estimated 4,500 people had crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent weeks, fleeing violence.
“They are likely to go back,” he said. “They could easily get infected and carry the virus back to Central African Republic.”
Related: Ebola Vaccine Works, Study Finds
Many of those moving across the border are cattle herders, and the Lord’s Resistance Army, as well as several different rebel groups, could all also carry the virus around.
“Now we’re partnering with UNICEF to spread the message in neighboring CAR, where there is a very limited governmental presence,” said CRS spokesman Michael Stulman. “The lack of basic services and poor infrastructure would make containing an Ebola outbreak there extremely challenging.”
This is the DRC's eighth Ebola outbreak.
Ebola has been causing sporadic outbreaks in various parts of Africa since 1976. The first and only epidemic was in 2014-2016 in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — a part of the continent where Ebola had never been seen before. It infected at least 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000 before it was brought under control.