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FIGHTING COVID-19 IN THE DRC

Wim Van Damme, professor of public health at ITM, is currently advising the Congolese government on the outbreak

21-04-20

Image 1/1 : Kinshasa, DRC

In these ‘corona times’ I am in Kinshasa, rather by coincidence. I was on a short mission in DRC, but then COVID-19 reached Kinshasa. I decided to stay to support ITM’s projects here, joining Inge Van Cauwenberg, permanent representative of ITM in Kinshasa, who works a.o. on our sleeping sickness project in DRC. In ‘normal times’ the ITM projects get frequent scientific support missions from Antwerp. These are now impossible due to the international travel ban. With corona fever rising, and severe containment measures implemented, many ITM projects slow down, as field activities for staff are restricted.

The “Riposte corona” here in DRC is led by the famous Prof Jean-Jacques Muyembe, renowned Ebola expert and head of the Institut National pour la Recherche Biomedicale (INRB), a long-time ITM partner institution. So, quite naturally, ITM was invited to step up support and join the “Riposte corona”. So we did, not only with logistics and material support, but also as a member of the “Conseil Scientifique de la Riposte Corona”. I joined this group of smart Congolese academics, who try to make sense of what is going on, and advise on ways to contain the spread of the virus, and reduce its deadly impact.

For the moment, the number of documented corona cases remains less than 20 per day, many in la Gombe, the centre of Kinshasa, initially imported by Congolese returning from Europe. But most probably there are quite some COVID-19 cases missed. A growing number of cases is reported from la Cité, where the majority of kinois live. There are also a few cases in other provinces. However, social distancing and improved hand hygiene, tough theoretically simple, are difficult for people living in dense slums and with poor access to water. Moreover, “stay at home” is impossible for people who earn their daily income in the informal sector. Also, many people fear to use health facilities, and health workers fear to get infected at work. Health care utilisation has decreased. Preventive programmes, such as vaccination, are reduced. There are many reasons to fear that “collateral damage” is already significant.

An explosive COVID-19 epidemic has not materialised till now. Is it only a question of time? Or will the epidemic spread more slowly? Scientists are trying to understand the transmission dynamics in different contexts. We are joining this effort of sense making, and identifying which research ITM can start up to help understanding and tackling COVID-19, and its collateral damage.

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