'The cat that kills people:' community beliefs about Ebola origins and implications for disease control in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Pathog Glob Health. 2019 Jun;113(4):149-157. doi: 10.1080/20477724.2019.1650227. Epub 2019 Aug 6.


The current Ebola epidemic in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has surpassed 1 700 deaths. Social resistance, a major barrier to control efforts, invites exploration of community beliefs around Ebola and its origins. We conducted a mixed-methods study, using four focus group discussions (FGDs) involving 20 participants, and a 19-item survey questionnaire, administered to a nonprobability sample of 286 community members throughout the outbreak zone. FGDs and surveys were conducted between 4 and 17 August 2018. FGDs revealed a widespread rumor early in the epidemic of two twins bewitched by their aunt after eating her cat, who developed bleeding symptoms and triggered the epidemic. However, this myth appeared to dissipate as the epidemic progressed and biomedical transmission became generally accepted. In our survey, 6% of respondents endorsed supernatural origins of Ebola. These respondents were more likely to believe that traditional medicine practitioners can cure Ebola. Wild animals were recognized as sources of Ebola by 53% and FGD participants commented that 'Ebola leaves the forest and hides in the hospital,' recognizing that zoonotic origins gave way to nosocomial transmission as the epidemic progressed. Taken together, our findings suggest that a dynamic syncretism of mythical and biomedical understanding of Ebola may have shaped transmission patterns. Mythical conceptions and fear of contagion may have fueled the 'underground' transmission of Ebola, as patients sought care from traditional healers, who are ill-equipped to deal with a highly contagious biohazard. A deeper understanding of beliefs around Ebola origins may illuminate strategies to engage communities in control efforts.

Keywords: DRC; Ebola; community engagement; epidemic; social resistance; transmission.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Culture*
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo / epidemiology
  • Disease Transmission, Infectious / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / epidemiology*
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / prevention & control*
  • Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This study was supported by Association for Health Innovation in Africa (AFHIA, Grant Number 2018-03 [KMC]). The funder had no role in study design, data collection, data analysis, data interpretation, writing of the report, or decision to submit the article for publication.