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Congolese Refugees Risk Infecting Neighboring Countries with Ebola

U.N. officials warn the deadly Ebola virus could be spread by refugees leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province. Officials are urging neighboring countries to increase surveillance at border crossings.

The number of confirmed cases in Congo's new outbreak of the virus has risen to 13, including three deaths, the nation's health ministry said late Saturday.

This latest outbreak was announced Wednesday with four confirmed cases, a week after the previous outbreak in DRC's northwest had been declared over, having killed 33 people. It was not clear whether the new outbreak, more than 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) away, was related.

More than 100 armed groups are involved in long-standing conflicts in DRC's North Kivu province. Ongoing fighting and instability in the region are adding layers of complexity and difficulty to international efforts to combat an Ebola outbreak in the region.

At least two decades of conflict has displaced more than 1 million of the province's 8 million inhabitants. Peter Salama, World Health Organization emergency response chief, told VOA an additional threat was posed by refugees. He warned that some of those fleeing into neighboring Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi might be taking the infection with them.

"So, not only do you have the problem of tracking that internal displacement, but then you have the potential exportation of infection across borders," Salama said. "And, that is why we are already working with the government of Uganda, particularly, but also Rwanda, which shares a border as well with northern Kivu, to be fully prepared for any eventualities across the border."

The U.N. refugee agency is lending its expertise to this situation. It is preparing shelters for at least 1,000 vulnerable internally displaced persons and other extremely vulnerable people in the Ebola-affected Beni area. It also is undertaking protection and monitoring activities.

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said his agency's staff in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania were on Ebola alert.

"Specifically, in Uganda, we have a continuous influx from the DRC. Our operation has intensified the awareness-raising among the refugee and host communities. We have also increased the infection control and outbreak preparedness measures," Mahecic said. "And, we also are preparing for entry screening. That could be the temperature checks for arriving Congolese refugees at the borders."

Mahecic said around 92,000 Congolese refugees have fled to Uganda so far this year. He said they are continuing to arrive at an average rate of between 100 and 200 a day.

Source: Voice of America

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