Ebola hemorrhagic fever (or simply "Ebola" for short) is one of the deadliest infectious diseases known.
With symptoms starting as early as two days following exposure, Ebola has killed up to 90 percent of all those infected and is spread by contact with bodily fluids, either directly or indirectly. Since first being identified in 1976, there have been over 24 outbreaks of Ebola with the worst of these outbreaks occurring in West Africa between 2013 and 2016. Over this three-year period, more than 28,000 people were infected with over 11,000 deaths.
The latest outbreak is now occurring in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) making it the ninth in that country's history. Despite warnings from WHO officials that the disease could spread to urban areas and that the world is on an epidemiological knife edge”, efforts at combating this latest outbreak are being blocked by widespread fears that Ebola has a supernatural cause. While health workers are attempting to introduce a prototype vaccine that may prevent further deaths, many victims are escaping hospital quarantine to seek out exorcisms from traditional healers and evangelical preachers.
In a recent media interview, Nurse Julie Lobali, who works in a hospital in Mandaka and is on the frontlines of the outbreak said "Some sick people believe that the Ebola epidemic comes from sorcery - they refuse to be treated and prefer to pray.” She also reported on a widespread belief that Ebola began as "a curse on those who ate stolen meat." While bush meat (meat from wild game, including chimps and gorillas) continues to be sold in many rural areas, a recurring rumour that "a hunter put a curse on the village because his big game was stolen". Along with spreading stories about the curse, some villagers are claiming that the government has warned that the Ebola epidemic is incurable due to being caused by witchcraft.
To combat this rumour and to help the efforts of health officials to contain the outbreak, the health ministry is planning to send anthropologists to parts of the DRC to reassure people that Ebola isn't caused by witchcraft. But WHO officials also warn that the Ebola epidemic is entering a critical stage. "The next few weeks will really tell if this outbreak is going to expand to urban areas or if we're going to be able to keep it under control," one representative told media sources.
Part of the problem is the superstitious fear that many Africans have concerning a disease as deadly as Ebola. According to Zacharie Bababaswe, a Congolese specialist in cultural history, “so many deaths is a sign of a curse and can only have been provoked by a bad spirit”. With many local evangelists claiming supernatural powers of healing, people exposed to Ebola continue to risk their lives, and the lives of the purported healers, by relying on remedies that they are more comfortable receiving.
In the meantime, the number of Ebola deaths continues to rise and health professionals on the front lines remain frustrated at the skepticism they face from potential victims.