Health workers don protective clothing as they prepare to attend to patients in the isolation ward to diagnose and treat suspected Ebola patients, at Bikoro Hospital in Bikoro, Congo. Image Credit: AP

Geneva: The World Health Organisation said Tuesday it was investigating allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse linked to efforts to fight Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The WHO said its leadership and staff were “outraged” by recent reports of sexual abuse by people saying they were working for the UN health agency in the Ebola fight.

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“The actions allegedly perpetrated by individuals identifying themselves as working for WHO are unacceptable and will be robustly investigated,” it said in a statement. “The betrayal of people in the communities we serve is reprehensible,” it said, stressing that “we do not tolerate such behaviour in any of our staff, contractors or partners.”

WHO pointed out that it had a “zero tolerance policy with regard to sexual exploitation and abuse.” “Anyone identified as being involved will be held to account and face serious consequences, including immediate dismissal,” it said.

WHO did not spell out the specific allegations, but its statement came after an investigative report by The New Humanitarian found that more than 50 women had accused Ebola aid workers from the WHO and leading non-governmental organisations of sexual exploitation, including forcing them to have sex in exchange for a job. WHO said its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had initiated a thorough review into the allegations, as well as “broader protection issues in health emergency response settings.”

DRC is currently battling a fresh Ebola outbreak in Equateur province, which has seen some 120 cases and 50 deaths since June. The current outbreak is DRC’s 11th, and its third in the past two years. Around a billion dollars in aid, along with an army of external specialists, flooded into the DRC after the much-feared haemorrhagic fever surfaced in its volatile east in 2018.

That outbreak was declared over on June 25 this year after 2,287 lives were lost - the highest Ebola toll in the DRC’s history and the second highest in the world, after the 2013-16 epidemic in West Africa that killed 11,000 people.