WHO declares Ebola outbreak an international emergency

The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the nearly year-long Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

The declaration could boost funding and support for outbreak-response efforts, which have been hampered by violence and community distrust in the affected areas.

Since January, officials have reported 198 attacks on health responders, which left seven dead and 58 healthcare workers and patients injured.

“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,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said today in a statement. “Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders—coming from not just WHO but also government, partners, and communities—to shoulder more of the burden.”

The outbreak was declared on August 1, 2018 and has tallied 2,512 cases and 1,676 deaths. So far, it’s centered in the DRC’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces, which are on the eastern side of the country bordering South Sudan, Uganda, and Rwanda.

The declaration Wednesday follows the spread of Ebola to Goma, a DRC city of nearly 2 million people at the border with Rwanda that acts as hub of regional transportation. On Sunday, health workers there confirmed the city’s first case in a 47-year-old pastor who had just arrived from Butembo, a DRC city that has struggled with the outbreak since last December.

The pastor has since died, and health workers identified and vaccinated 75 contacts. His family and co-travelers are now being monitored.

The health ministry said the speed with which the case was caught made the risk of Ebola’s spread in Goma low. But experts are nervous over the amount of movement through the city. Around 15,000 people cross the border from Goma to Rwanda every day, the WHO noted. And the city is a provincial capital with an airport and international flights.

The Emergency Committee of experts convened to assess the state of the outbreak today ultimately determined that the risk of Ebola’s spread “remains very high at national and regional levels but still low at global level.” The experts also urged responders to continue immunizing at-risk individuals with an experimental Ebola vaccine, which has shown to be 97.5 percent effective.

The meeting today was the fourth time the experts mulled declaring a PHEIC.

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