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'Perfect storm' of conflict threatens Ebola fight in Congo

Politicians are also spreading fear, making people reluctant to get vaccinated, WHO says.

A “perfect storm” of conflict and political manipulation is making it ever harder to fight a growing outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

Congo's health ministry reports 150 cases of suspected or confirmed Ebola in the eastern part of the country. WHO said 100 people had died.

Various militant and rebel groups have been staging attacks in the area for years but they’ve stepped up the fighting in recent weeks, making it even harder than it already was to fight the two-month-old outbreak.

"We are now extremely concerned that several factors may be coming together over the next weeks to months to create a potential perfect storm,” Dr. Peter Salama, WHO’s head of emergency preparedness, said in a statement.

The fighting is making it harder for aid workers to reach people they need to test or treat for Ebola, or to vaccinate them, Salama said. And politicians are manipulating fears ahead of a local election, he added.

“That resistance, driven by quite natural fear of this terrifying disease, is starting to be exploited by local politicians," Salama said. The confusion may make it difficult to extinguish the outbreak, he said.

People in the region are “already traumatized by decades of conflict and of murder,” Salama added. They are fleeing in many places, and the outbreak could easily spread to neighboring Uganda, he said.

This is the second outbreak of Ebola in Congo this year. An outbreak in the western part of the country was declared over in July, after infecting 53 people and killing 33.

Just days later, a second outbreak was discovered across the vast Central African nation, in a region that has been at the heart of multiple conflicts.

WHO has managed to vaccinate more than 11,000 people against Ebola, but workers are starting to see more people who are reluctant to get the vaccine.

Attacks have forced the WHO to suspend operations in the city of Beni, which had been the main base for the organization’s work in the entire province, called North Kivu.

A Uganda-based rebel group called the Allied Defense Forces has been especially destructive, Salama said. The Islamist group has overrun Congolese government bases as well as missions by U.N. stabilization forces.

“If WHO and its partners had to leave North Kivu ... we would have grave concerns that this outbreak would not be able to be well controlled in the coming weeks or months.”