WORLD NEWS Ebola crisis an international emergency, says WHO

THE World Health Organisation last night declared the Democratic Republic of Congo’s year-long Ebola outbreak a health emergency of international concern, a rare designation only used for the gravest epidemics.

The decision will trigger more funding and attention to a crisis that has been largely ignored by the international community since it began last August.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said: “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system.”

It is the fourth time the WHO has called an emergency meeting over the outbreak, but it has been reluctant to declare an emergency up until now.

The decision comes after a case of the disease emerged in Goma, a city bordering Rwanda and with a population of nearly two million people. The patient, a pastor, died and the case sparked fears that the disease could run out of control in such a densely packed urban area.

As the committee met yesterday, it also emerged that the disease had surfaced again in Uganda, where a Congolese woman travelled to buy fish at a market on July 11 before returning to DRC, where she died on Monday.

The disease has killed 1,676 people – more than two thirds of those who contracted it – over the past year.

The 2013-2016 west African Ebola epidemic killed more than 11,300 
 people.

Robert Steffen, chairman of the emergency committee, said last night that the outbreak was a “regional emergency and by no way a global threat”. Dr Tedros said that it was important that neighbouring countries did not close their borders as this would have a negative impact on travel and trade.

“Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of DRC, not to impose punitive and counterproductive restrictions,” he said.

“Such restrictions force people to use informal and unmonitored crossings, increasing the potential for spread of the disease.”

The largest outbreak the DRC – where the virus was first identified in 1976 – has ever faced, it has been largely confined to the North Kivu region, although there were three cases in Uganda last month. Ebola is highly infectious, spreading through contact with bodily fluids.

High levels of violence in the area linked to ethnic and tribal tensions have prevented health workers getting out into the field. Ebola health workers have also come under attack and an epidemiologist working for the WHO was killed in April.

This is the first time the region has experienced Ebola and authorities have struggled to gain the trust of communities, who are suspicious of the sudden influx of international aid workers.

Grahame White