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WHO declares Ebola outbreak a public health emergency of international concern

Finnish Red Cross/Maria Santto Rinsing Ebola protective gear in Beni, Finnish Red Cross/Maria Santo Rinsing Ebola protective gear in Beni, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (PHOTO/Courtesy)

KINSHASA – The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been declared a “Public health emergency of international concern,” a rare designation only used for the gravest of epidemics.

A statement released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday, July 18 said the epidemic has now become a health emergency noting “It is time for the world to take notice”.

The announcement follows days after the Ebola epidemic spread to Goma town for the first time.

Goma is a major urban town and home to more than one million people.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accepted the advice of his advisory board to invoke the emergency provision (PHEIC), only used by the UN health agency four times previously.

Those 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 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it welcomed the decision.

“While it does not change the reality on the ground for victims or partners engaged in the response, we hope it will bring the international attention that this crisis deserves,” the IFRC said in a statement.

According to the WHO’s international health regulations, drafted in 2005, the international emergency label should apply to a situation that is “serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected state’s national border; and may require immediate international action.

“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,” Dr. Ghebreyesus said.

Reports indicate that more than 1,600 people have died of Ebola since August 1, when the haemorrhagic virus erupted in DR Congo’s North Kivu before spreading to Ituri.

According to the United Nations health agency, no country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel or trade, adding that the risk of the disease spreading outside the region was not high.

The emergency committee that sat on Wednesday cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.

“It is important that the world follows these recommendations. It is also crucial that states do not use the PHEIC as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region,” said Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the Emergency Committee.

Dr. Ghebreyesus this week said the case in Goma was a potential game-changer, since it meant Ebola might now spread among the urban population and into neighbouring Rwanda.

However, a report from WHO cited a very high risk for Uganda’s Arua district, which borders a Congolese area where an Ebola patient died after having had contact with over 200 people.

Since 2014, the world has grappled with the worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It is estimated that the Ebola outbreak not only led to loss of over 10,000 lives but also tested the capacity and readiness of affected countries’ ability to respond to outbreaks.

The outbreak has since 2018 been classified as a level 3 emergency – the most serious – by WHO, triggering the highest level of mobilization from WHO. The UN has also activated the humanitarian system-wide scale-up to support the Ebola response.

The current outbreak of the epidemic has been all but confined to Congo, killing 1,673 people there – more than two-thirds of those who contracted it – over the past year, and three in Uganda last month.

The declaration of Ebola as a public health emergency of international concern will help DRC and neighbouring countries like Kenya in combating the spread of the disease.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, Health authorities in greater Masaka are also on a red alert over a suspected case of Ebola virus.

This is after a patient exhibited suspected symptoms of the haemorrhagic fever at Kitovu Hospital, Masaka District.

Officials on Wednesday said the Ebola suspect experienced symptoms in Kyotera, a town in Kyotera district about 50 Kilometres away from Masaka Town.

She was initially admitted at Byansi Clinic before being transferred to Kitovu Hospital.

Mr Emmanuel Ainebyona, the senior public relations officer at the Ministry of Health has confirmed the development and said blood samples from the patient have been sent for further analysis.

“It’s an alert case and a sample has been drawn and taken to UVRI for further testing,” he confirmed in a WhatsApp Chat.

Mr Ainebyona thus urged the residents of Kyotera to be calm as Ministry of Health investigates the alert case.

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