Four health workers fighting the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been killed and five injured in an attack by rebel militia, the World Health Organization has said.
The attacks occurred early on Thursday morning in the restive east of the vast central African country.
“We are heartbroken that people have died in the line of duty as they worked to save others,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general. “The world has lost brave professionals.”
Casualties include a member of a vaccination team, two drivers, local officials, a UN staff member and a police officer.
The campaign against the epidemic has shown signs of progress in recent months. In the past week, seven cases of Ebola were recorded, down from a peak of more than 120 a week in April 2019, health officials said.
“Ebola was retreating. These attacks will give it force again, and more people will die as a consequence,” said Tedros. “It will be tragic to see more unnecessary suffering in communities that have already suffered so much. We call on everyone who has a role to play to end this cycle of violence.”
It is the second deadliest outbreak ever. The worst struck west Africa between 2014 and 2016, claiming more than 11,300 lives.
Insecurity has complicated efforts to combat the epidemic in DRC from the outset, as has resistance within communities to preventative measures, care facilities and safe burials.
More than 300 attacks on Ebola health workers have been recorded in 2019, leaving six dead and 70 wounded, some of them patients.
Earlier this week, Ebola responders were told not to leave secure bases or their homes after angry residents stormed a UN peacekeepers’ camp in protest at the fatal militia attacks on civilians, the WHO said.
Government authority in eastern DRC is weak, with significant territory controlled by armed groups, especially a militia called the Allied Democratic Forces.
The Congolese army began an offensive against the ADF on 30 October, vowing to wipe out armed groups in the east of the country.
In the Beni area alone, 99 people have been killed by armed groups since 5 November, according to the not-for-profit Congo Research Group.
The bloodshed has sparked a wave of popular anger at the authorities and the large UN peacekeeping mission in DRC, Monusco.
DRC suffers deep poverty and is currently experiencing the world’s biggest measles epidemic.
“While the Ebola outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives in the eastern DRC, has commanded sustained international attention, measles, which has claimed more than twice as many lives, continues to be underreported”, said Edouard Beigbeder, Unicef representative in the country.
More than 5,000 people, including 4,500 children under the age of five, have died from the disease in DRC so far this year.