Doctor Marie-Claire Kolie knew Ebola only as a mysterious disease from medical school textbooks when it hit her home country of Guinea in 2014.
Today the 40-year-old mother of three is part of a team of doctors fighting a major outbreak of the disease in Democratic Republic of Congo, where she runs an Ebola treatment center for the World Health Organization (WHO).
Congo’s response to the Ebola epidemic – deploying vaccines and plastic-walled patient cubicles to prevent the disease from spreading – is more advanced than in Guinea, where in 2014 Kolie had to treat patients in communal tents.
But in Congo she faces another deadly challenge: frequent attacks on health centers by armed groups and civilians in a lawless region where militias roam and mistrust of the Ebola responders runs high.
Speaking by phone from the northeastern city of Butembo, Kolie said there had been many times when WHO officials told her to take shelter or stay on lockdown due to insecurity.
Ebola centers have been torched, health workers killed and extended gun battles have broken out between assailants and security forces in recent months.
“Sometimes if the security situation isn’t good, we have to abandon our patients,” Kolie said.
“You’re there, fighting to save someone you think you can save and all of a sudden they tell you the threat is too great and you have to retreat. It’s very hard for us,” she said.
“If it weren’t for (the conflict), I think with all the new technology we would be able to stop this outbreak quickly.”
The spread of Ebola in eastern Congo is the second largest outbreak of the disease after the one in 2014-2016, when more than 11,000 people died in the West African states of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
The current outbreak has killed 1,598 people since August, according to government figures.
Treating children and pregnant women is the most emotionally taxing, Kolie said since the likelihood of saving both mother and baby is slim.
“All Ebola cases are moving, but these are the ones that touch us a lot,” she said.
The current outbreak has disproportionately affected children, who made up more than a quarter of cases as of April, according to WHO.
Her experience treating patients in Congo often reminds Kolie of her best friend from medical school in Guinea, who was infected while delivering the baby of an Ebola patient.
After two weeks of intensive treatment, her friend succumbed to the disease herself.
“There are moments when I ask myself if it would be better to work in another area … when I think I’d rather stay with my children, and spend time with my family,” Kolie said.
Kolie sees patients every day and worries about them if she takes even a few hours off, but said she is determined to keep working in Congo until the epidemic is eradicated.
“When they say it is over, I will feel at ease and proud to have participated in ending it,” she said.
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