The local politics of Ebola vaccination in eastern DRC

A group of about 12 people stand in front of a thatched roof hut. One man is carrying a machine gun

Dr Jean-Christophe Shako with Mai-Mai militia members (via IRIN)

IRIN recently published a remarkable article about the hyperlocal politics of vaccinating people against Ebola in eastern Congo — a place where governance structures can change from town to town depending on which rebel group is in charge.  Dr Jean-Christophe Shako, the Ebola response coordinator in Butembo, had an interesting story about building relationships with the Mai-Mai militia in one town in order to vaccinate people after a young boy died of the disease.

[After I arrived in the town and met the Mai-Mai leaders], my hosts remained silent, observing and analysing my behaviour. Only when I began eating did the atmosphere lighten. My hosts started smiling and talking. The chief told me they appreciated my humility by agreeing to eat with them.

That is when our conversation finally started. They had never heard about Ebola nor the vaccination. So I spent more than 30 minutes explaining the virus to them, how it spreads, what the preventative measures are, and how the vaccination works.

Without saying a word, the village chief went outside and gathered the villagers. Then he allowed the titulaire to list all those who had been in contact with the baby boy so we could follow the chain of transmission. In total, 75 people came forward.

Everyone who had been in contact with the child was vaccinated the next day, and no one else in the town developed the virus.  As Dr Shako noted,

Earning trust during such a deadly outbreak is always hard. Which showed me yet again that respect, compassion, and humility can go a long way – even saving your life and the life of an entire community.

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