DAVID GREENE, HOST:
More than two months since an Ebola outbreak was declared in an eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, health officials are still struggling to end it. So far, at least 130 people have been infected. Last week, the World Health Organization declared that the risk is now very high that the disease will spread to other parts of the country and to neighboring countries. And yet there are some key health officials who remain optimistic that it won't actually come to that. NPR's Nurith Aizenman has more.
NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: It was always clear this outbreak was going to be extra-challenging. It's taking place in a part of the DRC where a violent conflict is raging. Mike Ryan is an assistant director general of the World Health Organization.
MIKE RYAN: We've had relentless, persistent attacks going on since the 24 of August. We've had 11 separate incidents.
AIZENMAN: Among the worst - two weekends ago, rebels killed more than 20 people, mostly civilians, in the current epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, a city called Beni.
RYAN: That's extremely close. That's a thousand meters from where we have hundreds of people based.
AIZENMAN: It took three days to fully resume operations. And when it comes to Ebola, time is of the essence. The main strategy has been to isolate and treat anyone with symptoms, then quickly track down anyone who has had contact with them - and any contacts of those contacts - to give them an experimental vaccine. Miss just one person...
RYAN: Then, potentially, there are hundreds of more people exposed.
AIZENMAN: This is also why Ryan is concerned about another difficulty. While thousands of people have agreed to be vaccinated, practically every day...
RYAN: Vaccination teams have arrived in villages, and there's been people claiming that the vaccinators themselves are bringing the disease.
AIZENMAN: The protesters have stoned vehicles of health workers and also safe burial teams, sometimes causing serious injuries. And the mistrust has helped drive a third worrisome development. Multiple people who were infected in the epicenter then opted to flee to locations several hours away. That's stretching the capacity of responders. It's also concerning because of another feature of this province of the DRC, called North Kivu.
JOHN JOHNSON: Well, North Kivu is one of the more densely populated areas of the Congo.
AIZENMAN: John Johnson has been working there with Doctors Without Borders. He notes that one of the cities with new cases, Butembo, has about a million people.
JOHNSON: It's going to be very hard to keep up with.
AIZENMAN: But the WHO's Mike Ryan says it's worth noting that so far, the vast majority of cases are tightly concentrated.
RYAN: This isn't spread in the classic sense of moving, you know, from town to town along a wave-like transmission. It's more like sparks that have jumped across the rainforest and started a small fire somewhere else.
AIZENMAN: And for the moment, at least, all of the new cases are linked to infected individuals that health officials already knew about. Ryan says the upshot is health officials have reached a sort of draw with the virus, with the number of new cases plateauing at seven to 10 per week. What will it take to turn the corner?
RYAN: There are some responses where, really, the end is prolonged and sometimes painful.
AIZENMAN: This is one of them, Ryan says, so we've got to be prepared to grind it out. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.
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