In the Democratic Republic of Congo, kissing a friend or acquaintance could be viewed akin to Judas' kiss of death. Ebola, the deadly virus that has hit DRC, is wiping out local traditions along with lives.
People began falling ill in April in Kampungu, Western Kasai province, epicenter of an outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever that had no cure or treatment and killed 50-90% of its victims. Though only a handful of cases had been confirmed, 385 suspected cases of the disease were reported along with 174 cases of deaths.
AdvertisementSays Antoine Bushambu, who works for a Congolese human rights organization: "People no longer kiss each other when they meet. They don't even shake hands. Those are the instructions the doctors have given to the population. There's been a big change in behavior."
A spokesperson for the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), Christiana Salvi was quoted: "So far we have only nine confirmed cases of Ebola, but we don't really know about the rest. We want to have the correct origins of those illnesses."
Without reliable information - something the WHO hoped would change with the arrival of a high-tech mobile laboratory this weekend - health workers are struggling to staunch panic.
"There's been no public education or health education. The concept of disease in these places is so far away from the clinical one. "This is the difference between families hiding patients and people coming in for treatment ... It's extremely important", says Josep Prior, head of Doctors without Borders (MSF) mission in the DRC.
Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with blood, body fluids and tissues of infected people. Towards the latter stages, victims become highly contagious and the disease could even be transferred through contact with bodies of the dead. There is no known cure for the virus, which is fatal in between 50 and 90 percent of cases.
After a major Ebola outbreak hit the town of Kikwit in neighboring Bandundu province in 1995, killing 250 people, many were believed to have caught it during the traditional funeral rite of washing corpses, which led to entire families being wiped out despite awareness campaigns.
Health officials hoped this time things would be different. DRC's health ministry has begun circulating leaflets and posters in several languages, and airing radio and television adverts. Actors were even touring remote villages staging plays that warned of the dangers of Ebola. "At least it show that people know what's going on and aware of the risks", says Salvi.
According to Bushambu, even people miles away in Mweka are not taking any chances and age-old village traditions are changing. "There are even those who bring their own cups to places where they drink palm wine. Before they used to share", she says.