Millisphere (abstract noun): A discrete region inhabited by roughly 1000th of the world population. A lens to examine human geography.

In the remote north of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), near the border with the Central African Republic (CAR), is the old Belgian Congo province of Equateur (population of 7.5 million).

This month, an outbreak of the ebola virus was reported there, near the city of Mbandaka (population 1.2 million). It's the DRC's ninth outbreak since 1976 when ebola was first been identified near the Ebola River, a tributary further up the Congo River from Mbandaka.

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When the explorer Henry Stanley passed through in the 19th century, he had a rock placed where the equator crossed the Congo, just south of Mbandaka. Known as the Stanley Stone, it still stands there today.

Seven kilometres east of Mbandaka are the botanical gardens of Eala, established by the Belgians in 1900. The gardens once covered 370ha and contained 5000 central African species but now, neglected and unfenced, it provides charcoal for Mbandaka.

The streets of Mbandaka are dirt, most of the city has no electricity or running water and roving groups of Kulana (bandits) commit armed robbery, rape and murder.

Meanwhile, Pygmies and other tribes of "eco-refugees" have settled on the outskirts as their forest habitats disappear.

During the Zaire-Congo war (1998-2003), when more than five million Congolese died, Equateur strongman Jean-Pierre Bemba assembled an army of deserters and ethnic militias and took control of the region.

Using jungle airstrips, Bemba traded blood diamonds for arms with dealers from Russia, Israel and New York. His Mouvement de Liberation du Congo (MLC) became a political party and in 2008 he challenged the DRC dictator Joseph Kabila for the presidency, coming second in an election that was probably rigged.

Later that year, Bemba was arrested in Brussels and sentenced at the International Criminal Court in the Hague to 18 years for crimes against humanity - the longest sentence so far passed by the court and the first for sexual violence. However, many Congolese in Equateur still consider Bemba their leader.

Mbandaka is the centre of the Tumba-Ngiri-Maindombe wetland (Lake Tumba is where the latest ebola outbreak started). An area twice the size of Belgium, comprising forest and permanent and seasonal lakes, the wetland has great environmental and economic value.


However, a rapidly growing population combined with a corrupt government may be contributing to its irreversible destruction. In 2009-2010, a dispute over fish ponds led to 200,000 refugees fleeing across the Oubangi River into the Republic of Congo.

After a drought in 2016, cholera broke out in Equateur, but the state has been unable to meet the region's health needs, which include TB, malaria and HIV.

There are desperately inadequate transport links, no medicines, no salaries for qualified caregivers and medical ethics mediated by animist priests. Cholera, like the weather, is considered a cyclical event.

Since 1976, the ebola virus has emerged periodically, primarily in African countries, though cases have been reported in the United States, Britain, Russia, Italy and Spain. Depending on the strain, the fatality rate ranges between 50 per cent and 90 per cent.

In the largest outbreak - in West Africa in 2014-16 - about 5000 people died in Liberia, 4000 in Sierra Leone and 3000 in Guinea.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it is thought that fruit bats are natural ebola hosts and that people can pick up the virus from infected "bushmeat". Shaking hands and bushmeat have suddenly become unpopular in Mbandaka.

Just before the latest outbreak, Donald Trump scrapped Barack Obama's US$250 million ($360m) ebola containment fund on the grounds that Africa was not part of the US geo-political interests - this was followed by the resignation of his global health security adviser.

Trump has since contributed US$7m towards fighting the latest outbreak.

A vaccine developed by the American pharmaceutical company Merck and trialled in West Africa in 2016 is being deployed by the WHO which is now fighting its first urban ebola outbreak.

So far about 60 ebola cases have been reported, half of whom have died. Meanwhile, last week 49 people drowned when a ferry heading for Mbandaka overturned.

■ Past millisphere columns can be accessed at