Africa

Ebola outbreak causes border friction between DR Congo, Rwanda

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Fears that Ebola could spread to neighbouring countries have mounted after the first of two fatalities occurred in Goma in mid-July, a transport hub lying adjacent to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi.

An epidemic of Ebola in eastern DR Congo marked its first anniversary on Thursday with two more cases in the densely-populated frontier city of Goma and accusations by Kinshasa that Rwanda had rushed to shutter its border in response to the crisis.

The two new cases of infection are the wife and the baby of a man who had died of Ebola on Wednesday, health workers said.

More than 1,800 lives have been lost in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since Ebola broke out on 1 August in  2018.

People wash their hands at the border between Congo and Rwanda.
People wash their hands at the border between Congo and Rwanda.
AAP

Fears that the disease could spread to neighbouring countries have mounted since mid-July when the first of two fatalities occurred in Goma, a transport hub lying adjacent to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi.

President Felix Tshisekedi's office on Thursday said Rwanda had made a "unilateral decision" to close its border - a move, it said, that was reversed eight hours later.

Goma, which has a population of more than two million, and Gisenyi, a city of more than 85,000, have close ties that depend on open borders.

Many people have jobs on the other side of the border while others have homes or put their children in schools in the neighbouring city.

An AFP reporter in Goma and a resident in Gisenyi each said at mid-morning that the frontier had been closed. In Rwanda, a government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "it is closed", without giving further details.

But the Rwandan health ministry later said the border had never been closed.

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Congo: The race to beat Ebola
Congo: The race to beat Ebola

There had only been a "traffic slowdown... as measures were put in place to reinforce screening procedures and public safety at entry points," it said in a statement.

Health Minister Diane Gashumba told journalists, "I talked with my counterpart the DRC minister of health and clarified that the border is open and should remain open."

Widening scare

Goma is the capital of North Kivu province, which has borne the brunt of the year-old epidemic, followed by neighbouring Ituri province.

Fifteen people have also been placed in quarantine in South Kivu province, which has so far escaped the epidemic.

The 15, including a mother and her six children who had come from Goma, were isolated in a hospital at Birava, the hospital's chief doctor, Ciza Nuru, said.

South Kivu Governor Theo Ngwabidje Kasi told the press Thursday that tests on the 15 were negative.

The first death in Goma, reported on July 16, was of an evangelical preacher who had travelled from Goma to Butembo, one of the towns hardest hit by the outbreak.

Health authorities checks a baby's temperature at a health checkpoint in Goma, RD Congo.
Health authorities checks a baby's temperature at a health checkpoint in Goma, RD Congo.
AAP

During his stay there, he preached at seven churches and regularly touched worshippers, including the sick, and then returning to Goma by bus, investigators said. 

The second Goma fatality, who died on Wednesday, had no connection with the first.

He was a gold miner who had been working in Mungwalu in Ituri province and had returned to his wife and 10 children at their home in the poor district of Kiziba.

He showed symptoms of Ebola on 22 July and went for outpatient treatment at a private clinic before going to the hospital on 30 July, which transferred him to an Ebola treatment centre.

His one-year-old daughter then fell ill and tested positive for the disease on Wednesday, investigators said.

Rwanda had temporarily closed its border with Congo over the deadly Ebola outbreak.
Rwanda had temporarily closed its border with Congo over the deadly Ebola outbreak.

Within hours of the announcement of this case, Rwanda closed the border, Congolese officials said.

WHO coordinator Boubacar Diallo said the fourth case "is the wife of the man who died yesterday morning."

"We are carrying out investigations," he told AFP.

Laborious fight

Health experts are especially concerned when contagious disease breaks out in a city.

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A rare look inside Australia's high-security Ebola lab
A rare look inside Australia's high-security Ebola lab

In an urban setting, the density of population, anonymity and high mobility make it far harder to isolate patients and trace contacts compared to the countryside.

The day after the preacher's death was announced, the WHO declared the epidemic a "public health emergency of international concern" - a move that prompted a surge in funding pledges.

The Ebola virus causes fever, vomiting and severe diarrhoea, often followed by kidney and liver failure, internal and external bleeding.

The disease is spread by contact with infected body fluids and is fought with time-honoured but laborious techniques of tracing contacts and quarantining them. 

The latest epidemic is the second deadliest on record after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014-2016.

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