Health

WHO declares international emergency over DRC Ebola outbreak

A woman gets her temperature measured at an Ebola screening station

JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been declared a global emergency, with the World Health Organization (WHO) calling for international support to stop its spread.

This is only the fifth event to be labelled a “public health emergency of international concern” by the organisation, and the move follows the death of a pastor in Goma, a city of almost two million people that borders Rwanda and is a hub of international travel.

Experts convened by the WHO worried that this, as well the virus spreading to new locations and flare-ups in previously controlled areas, could herald a growing epidemic.

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Despite efforts to contain the outbreak over the past year, the crisis has grown and is now responsible for the deaths of around 1,700 people, and another 2,500 possible or probable infections.

This is the second biggest Ebola outbreak on record, behind the West African Ebola outbreak of 2014.

Critics have been calling on the WHO to declare it an international emergency since the beginning of the year, and Adam Kamradt-Scott of the University of Sydney, Australia, says the announcement is “long overdue”.

Stringent measures

While it’s unclear why the organisation opted not to declare it an international emergency until now, one reason may have been to avoid overreactions by international governments. The West African outbreak led to travel bans, trade restrictions and border closings, which hurt local economies and made it more challenging for healthcare workers to operate.

In a statement, Robert Steffen, chair of the emergency committee convened by the WHO, stressed that governments shouldn’t react in the same way, saying it “would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region”.

The committee said that such measures were made “out of fear and have no basis in science”.

Kamradt-Scott says it is important that the international community step up efforts to control the spread of the virus.

So far, around 160,000 people have received a vaccine made by Merck that seems to be 97 per cent effective. But the Wellcome Trust, a health charity, recently warned that supplies could run out, and urged the use of a second vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson. The DRC health minister Oly Ilunga responded by saying there is no need for another vaccine.

Conflict zones

Containing the crisis has been made more challenging due to outbreaks occurring in conflict zones, which have led to murders and attacks on healthcare workers.

Distrust and scepticism about the virus and vaccines are also hampering public health efforts.

Kamradt-Scott says the public health response needs to learn the lessons from the 2014 outbreak in West Africa and approach it from a social and diplomatic approach as well as a medical one.

“This is an outbreak that’s occurring in an area of conflict, so the only way you can help address the outbreak is if you address the conflict,” he says.

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