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Ebola declared a 'public health emergency of international concern'

Meanwhile, WHO is to hold an ethics meeting next week over the use of experimental treatment to target Ebola.

Beds for patients are seen inside a tent at the recently opened but unstaffed Ebola treatment center in the village of Lakka on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Beds for patients are seen inside a tent at the recently opened but unstaffed Ebola treatment center in the village of Lakka on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

Updated at 2.40pm

THE WORLD HEATLH Organisation’s emergency committee has declared the current Ebola outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”.

In a statement after the meeting, the committee advised that the outbreak, which first emerged in Guinea in December 2013, “constitutes an ‘extraordinary event’ and a public health risk to other States”.

It recommended against a general international travel or trade ban, but said that its guidelines for restricting spread of the disease or preparing to deal with emerging cases should be adhered to.

A “coordinated health risk” is essential to prevent it from spreading, it said:

Four African states have confirmed Ebola cases: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. To date, there have been 1,070 confirmed cases and 932 deaths.

The WHO’s emergency committee recommended states “activate their national disaster/emergency management mechanisms and establish an emergency operation centre…to ensure efficient and effective implementation and monitoring of comprehensive Ebola control measures”.

Treatment centres and diagnostic labs should be located as closely as possible to sites of infection, it said, and no one who had contact with Ebola or Ebola cases should travel internationally, unless that travel is part of “an appropriate medical evacuation”.

In areas of intense transmission (e.g. the cross border area of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia), the provision of quality clinical care, and material and psychosocial support for the affected populations should be used as the primary basis for reducing the movement of people, but extraordinary supplemental measures such as quarantine should be used as considered necessary.

Spain Ebola An ambulance transporting Miguel Pajares, a Spanish priest who was infected with the Ebola virus while working in Liberia, leaves the Military Air Base near Madrid, Spain. The missionary was evacuated to Spain for treatment. Source: Daniel Ochoa de Olza

Plan Ireland response coordinator Damien Queally said he hopes today’s WHO announcement will intensify the international response to the outbreak.

Speaking from Senegal, Queally said that people in the three countries where Plan Ireland is responding (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia) are “scared, desperate and worried”.

The countries battling Ebola are among the poorest in the world and the public health systems across West Africa are fragile. The impacted countries desperately need financial and technical assistance to avoid a catastrophic situation.

“Many people frightened to go to local health clinics are opting for traditional medicines,” Queally added, saying that tackling frightening rumours and raising awareness of Ebola infection and protective measures can help to reduce the spread of infection and death.

Controversial treatment

There is currently no vaccine or known cure for Ebola and the standard treatment is ‘support treatment’ including maintaining the patient’s oxygen levels, blood pressure, fluids and electrolytes.

However, there are several experimental treatment in development.

WHO is holding an panel meeting of medical ethicists next week to explore the use of experimental treatment of Ebola cases. Two Americans who contracted the disease while treating patients in Liberia are the only two people so far who have been administered a new trial serum.

The decision has been criticised as failing to address the emergency in Africa and for prioritising the health of US citizens.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the experimental treatment is not available for general use and is in very limited supply as it is still in the development stage:

At this time, very few courses of this experimental treatment have been manufactured. Since the product is still in an experimental stage, it is too early to know whether ZMapp is effective. The manufacturer of this experimental treatment continues to research and evaluate the product’s safety and effectiveness. It has not yet been tested in humans for safety or effectiveness and much more study is needed.

WHO’s Assistant Director-General Dr Marie-Paule Kieny said that the organisation is convening a panel of ethicists to discuss the ethical use of experimental treatments, including the decision of who should have access to that treatment.

“We are in an unusual situation in this outbreak. We have a disease with a high fatality rate without any proven treatment or vaccine,” she said.

Read: Irish aid workers travel to Sierra Leone to help with Ebola outbreak >

Read: Second Ebola death confirmed in Nigeria as Spain plans evacuation of sick missionary >

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