“We Expected to Die” How USAID helped contain the 1st Ebola Case in Goma
When the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with more than two million people, the world braced for the worst. Find out how USAID and partner World Vision helped ensure the virus did not spread.
The Sick Pastor
The story of Goma’s first Ebola case started here, Bishop Bernard Kabamba said as he sat on his front porch. He was thinking back to the second Sunday in July when Pastor Kubiya showed up at his front gate asking for help. Pastor Kubiya was on his way home from Beni, a town more than 200 miles north, where he had spent the last few weeks preaching. But, when his bus arrived in Goma, Pastor Kubiya felt sick and knew he had to get help. So he proceeded to the home of the one person he knew in the city: Bishop Bernard Kabamba.
Bishop Bernard welcomed him, but knew immediately that something was very wrong with the pastor. He called Meshock Byayi-Tchihanza, his church’s motorcycle driver, and instructed him to drive the sick pastor to the nearest health facility and help him check in.
What neither man knew at the time is that while Pastor Kubiya was preaching in Beni, he had also attended the funeral of his brother, who had died days earlier of Ebola.
Since the Ebola crisis began in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in mid-2018, more than 3,300 cases have been confirmed in the eastern part of the country and more than 2,200 people have died. It is now considered the largest outbreak of the disease in the country’s history, and containing it was a top priority for health officials and the international community.
Jonathan Mongello, an official for the DRC Ministry of Communication, was on call when the alert came in that there was a confirmed Ebola case in Goma. Although the disease had been raging through eastern DRC for nearly a year at this point, this was the first known case in a major city. Goma is not only the capital of North Kivu, it is also a major transit hub of more than 2 million people that borders Rwanda. Without action, they knew the disease would spread quickly.
Because contact tracing — identifying people who have encountered an infected person — has been critical to Ebola response efforts, Jonathan was tasked with finding every single person who had interacted with Pastor Kubiya and encouraging them to get vaccinated. Jonathan started by talking to the hospital staff, who then informed him that Pastor Kubiya had been dropped off by a motorcycle driver. Jonathan then used his networks to track down Meshock and Bishop Bernard.
Myths and Rumors
At the same time that Jonathan was hitting the streets to find everyone who had been in contact with Pastor Kubiya, the news of the first Ebola case in Goma went viral. First by word of mouth, then social media, then it hit the airwaves. Local radio stations began broadcasting it, and soon the international media picked up the story. The World Health Organization (WHO) said this case could be a “game-changer” given the city’s population of more than two million and its close proximity to Rwanda.
But as the news spread, so did the rumors. Misinformation about the disease has been rampant, fueled in part by the communities deep-rooted distrust of the government and foreigners.
“Some people believe it’s a made up disease, that it’s not real,” Helen Barclay Hollins, the World Vision Eastern Zone Director explained. “Some believe the disease was made by people to make money and to create jobs. Some believe it’s for political gain. The communities have been thoroughly confused about what Ebola really is and how they can protect themselves from getting it.”
A Difficult Decision
It didn’t take long for Jonathan Mongello to find Meshock and Bishop Bernard. He explained that they had been exposed to the Ebola virus and that they — along with their whole families — needed to get vaccinated.
Both Meshock and Bishop Bernard were hesitant and scared. To make matters worse, Meshock’s wife, Shantal, was pregnant.
“I was very afraid. I had heard that pregnant women shouldn’t get vaccinated because it could harm the baby and affect its development,” Shantal said. “But I was also very afraid of Ebola.”
Luckily, Jonathan (who is also a pastor) had recently completed World Vision’s Channels of Hope program, which is funded by USAID. The program is designed to educate religious leaders of many faiths — including Christians, Muslims, Catholics, Adventists, Church of Christ in Congo — about Ebola in order to counter misinformation surrounding the disease.
“As a community leader, you need to be equipped,” Jonathan said. “From the World Vision training, I learned how to more effectively listen to others and how to help them deal with their fears and emotions.”
Through the Channels of Hope program, religious leaders learn how the virus is spread and how they can keep their community safe. They’re encouraged to find ways to incorporate this messaging into their sermons, religious teachings and daily practices in order to educate their congregations and communities. To date, this program has trained nearly 900 faith leaders and community influencers.
“There are so many examples of people refusing to get vaccinated or refusing to go to a health center until their priest pastor or imam intervened and encouraged them to go and get tested, seek medical advice or get vaccinated.” Helen Barclay Hollins explained. “In many cases, they have been the person that has had the most influence in helping to change behavior.”
A Living Testament
Even after Jonathan convinced the Bishop Bernard, motorcycle driver Meshock, and their families to get vaccinated, their ordeal wasn’t over. It can take up to 21 days for Ebola symptoms to appear. The wait was excruciating. During that time, they felt ostracized and alone.
“It was not easy for us,” Bernard’s wife Caroline-Okawo said. “People started asking if he had slept here, if he had come to our church. People wouldn’t talk to us. Children would point. We expected to die.”
But they survived Ebola, and not a single person who came in contact with Pastor Kubiya in Goma got sick. They now use the story of their experience to enforce their message and help educate their community.
“Afterwards, the first thing we did was tell our church to get vaccinated,” Bernard said. “They listen to us as spiritual leaders and we now have something to say about Ebola. We went through this and survived it. We are a living testimony.”
The United States is working closely with the Government of the DRC, the World Health Organization, international partners, and other aid groups to stop the outbreak by improving infection prevention and control, upgrading water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure in health facilities, raising awareness in communities about Ebola transmission, and providing other life-saving support.
Read more about USAID’s humanitarian efforts in the DRC.