WHO declares Ebola outbreak a global health emergency

A Congolese health worker vaccinating a man in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. | Reuters

Eleven months after the first Ebola virus infections in Congo, the WHO decided on Wednesday to classify the epidemic as a global emergency, in order to draw the attention of the international community to the alarming situation, which could reach Many countries.

Five years after the terrible epidemic in West Africa, which had killed more than 11,000 people until 2016, the Ebola virus strikes again in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with more than 2,500 people infected since August 2018, including 1650 who have died. This new epidemic prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare it a "global health emergency".

This classification is not intended to force governments to do more, but to launch a global alert to make the problem more visible. It must be declared only in exceptional situations where the risk of spread may affect other countries and become an international problem. However, the WHO does not want it to generate a reaction that could affect the economy and efforts of the DRC.

" It's always a regional emergency and not a global threat, " says Robert Steffen, chairman of the emergency committee responsible for classifying the epidemic as a global health emergency. " States must not use this emergency as a pretext to impose restrictions on trade or travel, which would have a negative impact on the reaction, life and livelihoods of the inhabitants of the region ".

His committee had previously made three requests to WHO to classify the epidemic as a global emergency. It is only after the diagnosis of the first case of infection on July 14 in Goma, a border town with Rwanda of almost two million inhabitants and where more than 15'000 people cross each day to pass a country to country, as well as the spread of the epidemic more than 500 km from the epicenter of the infection (city of Beni), which the UN institution decided to take into account their demand, admitting also the failure of containment measures.

The DRC Ministry of Health has accepted the WHO statement, but wonders if it would not have been influenced by individuals who would seek more humanitarian funds by exploiting the epidemic. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had also said that the funds they could raise (54 million) are largely insufficient, and that this will mean that the epidemic will continue for a very long time.

The concern in the city of Goma is not only due to its population and its common border with Rwanda, but also to its international airport, which could favor the appearance of infections in a country far from the DRC. Last month, a five-year-old child and his grandmother died in Uganda after attending a funeral in the DRC for a family member who died for the same reason.

Crime in the Goma and Beni regions is also worrying health officials. More than 198 attacks in medical facilities as well as health workers (including seven who were murdered) have been registered since January. Poorly maintained infrastructure, political violence and the public's loss of confidence in public health officials in the country do little to improve the situation.

Many people applaud the global health emergency declaration. "There is a significant risk of increasing the number or spread to new places. [...] This may be the most complicated epidemic the world has ever faced, but the response in the DRC remains overwhelmed and underfunded, "says the head of the Wellcome Trust Josie Golding.

A vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical Merck has already been distributed to more than 161,000 people in the country, but it is possible that reserves are running out quickly. The health minister has rejected the use of another vaccine still in experimental phase produced by Johnson & Johnson. WHO would like to change his mind, and reassure him on the positive results obtained until today during the tests.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, Global Health Security Specialist at the University of Sydney says the DRC should learn from the epidemic in West Africa.

" It's an epidemic that's happening in a conflict zone. The only way you can help cope with the epidemic is to resolve the conflict, "partly referring to the various acts of violence on health officials in the region, part of which is due to lack of trust from the people to the government.


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