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Ebola: WHO decides DRC outbreak is not a 'global' health emergency

The current Ebola crisis has recorded more than 2,000 cases.

LAST UPDATE | 14 Jun 2019

Uganda Ebola Outbreak Workers wearing protective clothing prepare to bury Agnes Mbambu who died of Ebola. Ronald Kabuubi / PA Images Ronald Kabuubi / PA Images / PA Images

THE WORLD HEALTH Organisation (WHO) has decided that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo does not qualify as an international threat, despite the spread of the virus to neighbouring Uganda carried by an infected family.

The closely-watched decision followed advice from WHO’s emergency committee, which only meets to review the world’s most severe outbreaks. 

The head of the UN health agency, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is in DRC reviewing the Ebola response, said he accepted the committee’s advice. 

“Although the outbreak does not at this time pose a global health threat, I want to emphasise that for the affected families and communities, this outbreak is very much an emergency,” Tedros told reporters. 

He also appealed for more funds to combat the ongoing Ebola flare-up, which has recorded more than 2,000 cases, including over 1,400 deaths, since it emerged in eastern DRC in August. 

The WHO panel, formed in 2005, has used the label “public health emergency of international concern” for only four previous epidemics.

Those emergencies included the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic of 2009, the spread of poliovirus in 2014, the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the surge of the Zika virus in 2016. 

The current Ebola crisis, which began in eastern DRC in August, has recorded more than 2,000 cases – 1,405 of which were deadly. 

The WHO panel, known as the International Health Regulations and Emergency Committee, has met twice already before today on the current DRC outbreak.

It held off making the emergency call at previous meetings in October and April – in part because the virus had not spread internationally. 

This week, however, it was confirmed that Ebola had reached western Uganda, where it has claimed two lives so far. 

‘Immediate international action’

A Congolese woman – who is married to a Ugandan – as well as her mother, three children and their nanny had travelled to DRC to care for her ill father, who later died of Ebola.

The WHO said 12 members of the family who attended the burial in Congo were placed in isolation in the DRC, but six “escaped and crossed over to Uganda” on 9 June.

The next day, a five-year-old was admitted to hospital in Bwera, a border town, vomiting blood before he died. Tests confirmed he had Ebola and the family was placed in an isolation ward. 

His three-year-old brother was also confirmed to have Ebola, as was their grandmother, who died on Wednesday.

The fact that cases have crossed a border does not automatically compel the WHO panel to make the emergency declaration, especially as the epidemic is still confined to one contiguous region.

But invoking the emergency provisions will entail additional measures to manage the outbreak, including a possible call for “immediate international action”, according to the UN health agency. 

Irish development agency Concern, meanwhile, has said it is “dramatically scaling up its work” after the spread of the epidemic into Uganda. 

‘Humanitarian disaster’

Mark Johnson,  Concern’s coordinator in the Ebola-hit North Kivu province of DRC, has said in this region “all the elements are there for a humanitarian disaster…with a highly contagious disease, a million displaced people and insecurity that has resulted in attacks on health facilities making it more difficult for aid workers to access key areas.”

“Our efforts are concentrated on preventing the Ebola outbreak spreading further in North Kivu and preparing the health centres and populations in the event that it does,” he said.

“If the outbreak continues to move south and reaches Goma, and possibly Rwanda, we will have an international crisis on our hands,” Johnson added.

The number of Ebola cases has now reached 2,084 with the number of deaths rising by 280% since the start of this year from 370 on 2 January 2 to 1,405 on 11 June.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised people travelling from Ebola-hit DRC regions to Rwanda that they must provide advance notice of their intention to travel to Rwanda to the Rwandan Ministry of Health.

“They will need to comply with quarantine procedures for a period of 21 days before onward travel within or through Rwanda is permitted,” the DFA has said. 

The HSE is currently establishing a register of all aid workers going to these countries “so that on their return to Ireland the HSE can undertake assessment of their potential exposures to Ebola while in DRC,” it has said. 

Ebola is one of the world’s most notorious diseases, being both highly infectious and extremely lethal.

It is caused by a virus that has a natural reservoir in the bat, which does not itself fall ill, but can pass the microbe on to humans who hunt it for “bushmeat”.

The virus is handed on by contact with bodily fluids – touching a sick or dead person is a well-known source of infection.

Following an incubation period of between two and 21 days, Ebola develops into a high fever, weakness, intense muscle and joint pain, headaches and a sore throat.

That is often followed by vomiting and diarrhoea, skin eruptions, kidney and liver failure, and internal and external bleeding.

The latest outbreak in DRC is the 10th such outbreak in the country since the disease was first detected there in 1976.

With reporting from © – AFP 2019

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