The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization announced today.
“The risk of spreading Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the region remains very high, and the risk of spreading outside the region remains low,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, during a press conference on Wednesday.
“Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of the DRC.”
The WHO defines a public health emergency of international interest as “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk for other States through the international spread of the disease” and that “possibly requires a coordinated international response”.
The WHO Emergency Committee for the International Health Regulations for Ebola Viral Disease in the Congo met at the organization’s world headquarters in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss whether the outbreak is an international concern.
“The fight continues for a whole year,” said Robert Steffen, chairman of the committee, during a press conference on Wednesday.
The meeting was the fourth time the committee met to review the outbreak. In a deliberation on Friday, it was decided that the outbreak does not constitute a public health emergency of international interest.
“This emergency in the Congo has been going on for almost a year and it is a very, very serious emergency and it has been treated as our highest level of emergency from the beginning, but the difference that is happening with this committee is, do we need? To tell the rest of the world to start taking action, and if so, what action are we going to tell them to do? “Dr. Margaret Harris, WHO communication director on the Ebola emergency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo said in a video posted on Twitter before the meeting on Wednesday.
“They make their decision as a consensus,” he said. “They will also present what, under that public health emergency of international interest that other countries should do, therefore, they will have recommendations for the affected country: that is the Congo, they will have recommendations for neighboring countries, those that are at the highest risk. He will also have recommendations for the rest of the world. ”
The consensus and recommendations of the committee are then presented to the Director-General of WHO, who chooses whether or not to accept the decisions of the committee.
Global health emergencies are usually only announced in what WHO calls “extraordinary” circumstances, this being only the fifth such statement.
With its latest statement, the WHO does not recommend any restrictions on travel or trade, but the organization issued recommendations for affected countries, which include continuing to strengthen awareness and community assessments, among other actions.
The WHO decision to declare a public health emergency of international interest will not dramatically change the strategy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to combat the deadly outbreak, said the country’s Health Minister, Oly Ilunga Kalenga.
“There is only one strategy to combat Ebola,” Kalenga told a news conference in the city of Goma on Thursday. “It’s a series of actions around each case, we need to identify contacts, vaccinate contacts and disinfect and respect general hygiene norms, these measures allow the epidemic to be contained, what changes is the context.”
Funding falls short
Committee members were disappointed by the delays in funding that have limited the response, according to the WHO, despite the fact that the outbreak lasted for almost a year and confirmed cases of Ebola in constant expansion.
WHO staff in the field have been disappointed by the number of pledges of funding that came close to the needs of their response for several months.
While it is serious, this outbreak has not yet received the level of global attention that a West African outbreak has accumulated, killing more than 11,000 people. There has also been no significant spread outside the DRC, something that health officials say has led to a form of donor complacency.
That complacency was also compounded by the belief that an experimental vaccine would help stop this outbreak in the first weeks of the response, according to several respondents from both the UN and the NGOs with whom CNN spoke on the ground in June.