Bush meat and cross-border visits are off the table for Jenti Gabriel Mambuku, a mother of eight living in a South Sudanese market town a short bus-ride from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
The reason: Congo’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak that’s claimed 460 lives since August. The last time the deadly hemorrhagic virus went transnational in 2014, it killed more than 11,000 people in three West African countries.
The outbreak has put war-torn South Sudan on high alert, with health workers being vaccinated and residents being taught how to avoid infection. In Mambuku’s town, Yambio, that means foregoing trips to see family in Congo and avoiding local delicacies like monkey, zebra and antelope meat.
“I told my children that we cannot continue eating bush meat or any dry meat because we fear that the Ebola is very near now,” the 35-year-old said in an interview on the outskirts of Yambio, about 220 miles west of South Sudan’s capital, Juba.
Human infections of Ebola in Africa have been associated with hunting, butchering and processing of meat from infected animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2002, the World Health Organization linked an outbreak of Ebola in Gabon to an infected gorilla.
Yambio is situated in dense forest within about 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the border with Congo, where residents source so-called bush meat. In the past, inhabitants of the town and surrounding areas simply walked across the border to visit relatives on the other side, often bringing fresh supplies with them.
Those trips are being curbed because of the Ebola outbreak, according to Victor Diko, a Yambio county official who is supervising efforts to prevent the disease from spreading. The outbreak in Congo is in two provinces — North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, and Ituri, along the boundaries with Uganda and South Sudan.
“The risk of Ebola spreading here is very high because of the very many porous border points which are not monitored,” Diko said in an interview.
South Sudan is ill-equipped to mount an emergency response to a disease outbreak. Five years of civil war that erupted in December 2013 and may have killed almost 400,000 people has stretched the country’s health facilities to near-breaking point.
“Coupled with insecurity and inaccessibility, an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in South Sudan can potentially be devastating with immense human suffering and a high number of deaths,” said Helene Sandbu Ryeng, a spokeswoman for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. “Prevention is paramount.”
The UN has appealed for $16.3 million to help set up systems needed to prevent the disease from spreading to South Sudan, which has had three previous outbreaks of the disease. The Ebola response in West Africa in 2014-16 cost more than $3.6 billion.
The UN said on Monday it’s Central Emergency Response Fund allocated $2 million to help strengthen surveillance in South Sudan and fund other measures needed to protect about 440,000 people in high-risk areas.
The area along the Congolese border lacks adequate mobile-phone networks that would allow health workers to carry out prevention campaigns by SMS, according to Ryeng. That, coupled with low levels of literacy, has forced community members to hold meetings with small groups of people to sensitize them to the threat the disease poses.
The message is getting through.
“I am scared to visit my relatives who are across the border because I fear I can contract Ebola,” said Mambuku. “They are also not coming to us because we don’t want them to bring the disease here.”
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