Soon, in a separate post, we will update you about all we have been doing in Central America, particularly with sea turtles or the last two years. We will be having a research article published soon from our study in hawksbill turtles in El Salvador, and will update you on our first two seasons of sea turtle microbiome collection in Nicaragua, despite the ongoing turmoil in the country. We will also update you on our tick and zoonotic disease research in the area, and what we are working on for the future.
But today I’d like to announce that we have been asked by a collective in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to join them in One Health research and capacity building. A couple of months ago our President, Dr. Aubrey Tauer was contacted by an old research buddy of hers, who had worked with her on her student project with the organization Gorilla Doctors in Uganda in 2008. Jean-Paul Lukusa has a degree in microbiology and a Master of Public Health, and has been Manager of the Employee Health Program at Gorilla Doctors based in his native Congo for a number of years. He has organized a group of fellow Congolese scientists and health professionals, including physicians and veterinarians, around Goma city in the North Kivu province, into the group Volunteers for the Conservation of Fauna and Flora (VCFF). They have already accomplished significant One Health work in their free time from their normal jobs, including studies of zoonotic (infectious diseases spread between animals and humans) bacteria with antibiotic resistance in milking cows (a common exposure for many children who work on farms) and parasite infections in school aged children working for mining companies. We initially planned on collaborating on several different studies, many of them having to do with the health of child laborers, develop research projects in and around Virunga National Park when it reopens in 2019 into wildlife health and disease, developing alternative livelihood opportunities for people in this region to reduce poaching, such as small scale aquaculture farming (with the hope that we could also reduce the burden of malaria carrying mosquitoes around such farm systems) and much more, including supporting Congolese students in getting masters degrees in biotechnology, which are not offered in DR Congo.
However, if you’ve been paying attention to the news, our initial plans for where we wanted to get started have to take a back seat to the growing Ebola virus crisis in North Kivu province. As of yesterday, November 26th, there have been over 400 confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease, and due to instability in the region because of armed rebel groups around the areas having the outbreak, and general public mistrust of the government (especially so close to the December 23rd Presidential election which has everyone on high alert) the Ministry of Health is having difficulty tracing contacts, finding resistance to vaccination with the newly approved Ebola vaccine, and are discovering cases of Ebola after people have already died, exposing many other people potentially to the disease, which is not how any infectious disease outbreak like this should be progressing (it is much easier to stop an epidemic when you can quarantine and treat disease positive patients and trace their contacts and vaccinate or treat those contacts). And, amazing as it may sound to people in the West who have followed the Ebola pandemic of 2014-2018, many people in the North Kivu region have never heard of Ebola virus disease, making it that much harder for responding agencies to win the people’s trust.
So Mr. Lukusa and his colleagues have proposed to adapt a workshop they have already used successfully several times, which involves educating school children and community members at schools and churches around Goma city about sanitation, preventing disease transmission especially through proper hand washing techniques, discussing vaccines for preventing disease, and installing hand washing stations with clean filtered water, usually incorporating games or song/dance activities, a proven method in Central Africa for using culturally appropriate methods to discuss these kinds of topics, often used in conservation biology. Mr. Lukusa and the VCFF and Cūra Earth have decided to work together to adapt this workshop to assist the Congolese Ministry of Health, Medicine Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), and the World Health Organization with their efforts to eliminate the disease outbreak, but with a different approach than traditional epidemiology used by those organizations, which involves tracing contacts of ill individuals, testing and treating for Ebola virus disease, and vaccinating contacts.
Vaccination alone is a contentious topic in North Kivu province, as many people, very concerned that their government may try to hurt them, especially this close to the Presidential election which has been delayed by two years already, distrust vaccines. Distrust of the communities towards the Ministry of Health and foreign aid groups is very high right now, and we believe a group of Congolese scientists not affiliated with the government but working with contacts in the Ministry of Health to target our workshops at groups and locations that desperately need them can help shorten the duration of the outbreak, the size and lack of control of which has many people worried it will spread to other countries in the region, especially Uganda and Rwanda which are very close to the outbreak area in DR Congo.
We need to immediately raise $40,000 in order to host the number of workshops that we believe are necessary to combat the disease, around the Beni and Butembo where most of the Ebola cases are concentrated, as well as around Goma, which is south of the outbreak zone but a fairly short distance from it, is a large city, and right on the border with Rwanda where many people move back and forth. Having the communities ready in Goma in case the disease spreads towards them is essential, it could prevent some or many of the problems the teams in the outbreak area are having. VCFF and Cūra Earth have identified and started developing more modules for the workshops including one on transmission of Ebola virus from bushmeat and what the virus does, and fundraising takes into account installing filtered water hand washing stations at community gathering places such as schools and churches. We are very excited to be able to start this program as soon as funding is secured, which is why we are pursuing both crowd-funding and other sources of funding.
Once we have a minimum amount to cover transportation, educational materials, and the hand washing station equipment we can get started, while continuing to raise money to fund more workshops and travel further outside Goma into the region in northeastern North Kivu province where the outbreak is ongoing. We have discussed and continue to discuss the best way for the team to stay safe, from both the Ebola virus itself as well as the armed rebel groups in the region. I hope you will see the importance and necessity of what we are doing, not as a replacement for the work of the Ministry of Health, MSF, or WHO, but to compliment their activities and ultimately make their work easier, and that it is essential to support solutions to crises like this by people on the ground, who know the culture and are native to the area in which it is occurring, providing a perspective that is unique and valuable. Please consider making a donation today through our website or through our GoFundMe, ask your employers about matching contributions, and please spread the word about our fundraising efforts. Cūra Earth is acting as a financial sponsor for VCFF as they are not a 501c3 nonprofit in the US, and any money raised over the targeted goal will go towards more workshops/more outreach, as well as startup funds for projects we hope to launch once the Ebola outbreak is eliminated, such as scholarships for Congolese students to attend graduate school in Eastern African countries, fund research projects for Congolese and other students, fund research and development projects in eastern DR Congo. Have questions about the project or have ways you believe you can help? Post a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your support! GoFundMe link for campaign!