DRC health minister quits as Tshisekedi takes over Ebola response

NAIROBI — DRC Health Minister Oly Ilunga Kalenga has resigned a few days after the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the country a global public health emergency.

Ilunga made public Monday his two-page resignation letter addressed to President Félix Tshisekedi. In the letter, Ilunga raised issues with the president’s decision to hand over the responsibility of leading the Ebola response to a multisectoral team that directly reports to the president, a move made while Ilunga was away supervising the response in Goma.

“The composition of this committee, whose members took initiatives these past months interfering in the management of the response, do not reflect the multisectoral approach necessary to manage the current health crisis,” he wrote in the letter, which Devex has translated from French to English.

While this transition of leadership could further complicate the response, new approaches to tackling the epidemic could be beneficial, said Trina Helderman, senior health advisor at Medair, a humanitarian organization involved in the Ebola response.

“Any change in leadership is challenging in the middle of an ongoing response,” she told Devex. “We are likely to see new strategies and approaches in the coming months. We’ve appreciated Dr. Ilunga’s efforts to ensure the response is building into the pre-existing health system. … We look forward to engaging with the new minister to see how NGOs can best be positioned to leverage our strengths and support the response.”

In his letter, Ilunga warned the government of “strong pressure” to introduce a new experimental vaccine, “proposed by stakeholders who have not upheld ethical standards” by withholding information from health authorities.

“It would be wrong to think that the new vaccine (two doses given 56 days apart) …. could have any real impact on the ongoing outbreak,” he wrote in the letter.

Ilunga has previously publicly dismissed the introduction of a new vaccine, speaking out against a push by several global health actors, and recommendations by WHO’s Advisory Group of Experts to introduce an experimental vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson.

DRC has a long way to go to providing universal health care, with limited access to basic services and poor health care outcomes. Last year, Devex spoke with Ilunga about key roadblocks and what’s needed to build a stronger health care system.

The former health minister further noted the current response requires clear lines of command, not “several decision-making centers,” which risks creating confusion and “an unhelpful amount of voices to be listened to in the response.”

“Thus, drawing the consequences of your decision to put the management of the response to this Ebola outbreak under your direct supervision, and in anticipation of the clamoring of voices harmful to the response that will inevitably follow this decision, I hereby offer you my resignation as minister of health,” he wrote.

His resignation drew mixed reactions on social media. Some shared their appreciation for the health minister’s work, while others said it’s about time, assigning to the minister the failure to contain the outbreak, which will hit the one year mark on Aug. 1.