WHO declares Congo Ebola outbreak a public health emergency of international concern

Posted at 2:59 AM, Jul 18, 2019

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo an international emergency.

An emergency committee of experts convened by the WHO, the global health arm of the United Nations, recommended the declaration after meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to reassess whether the current epidemic constitutes a "public health emergency of international concern," a designation that often mobilizes more resources and commands global attention.

“The government of the DRC is doing everything it can. They need the support of the international community," WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in a press conference after the announcement.

This is only the fifth time in history such a designation has been used, and the most recent was during the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa.

The WHO expert committee had thrice declined to make the declaration for the current outbreak.

"It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts," Ghebreyesus said. "We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system."

The committee members urged neighboring countries and the international community not to impose trade or travel restrictions, which they said would have a negative impact on the Ebola response as well as the lives and livelihoods of people in the affected region.

The move comes on the heels of the Ebola virus spreading to the Congolese city of Goma, a major transportation hub along the Democratic Republic of the Congo's eastern border with Rwanda that's home to more than two million people.

A confirmed Ebola case in Goma was announced late Sunday by the country's health ministry. The patient, a 47-year-old pastor, was transferred to an Ebola treatment center but died. Officials identified and vaccinated 40 confirmed contacts of the pastor in Goma as well as 37 "high risk" contacts, the ministry said.

The WHO's director-general said the identification of a confirmed case in Goma shows a “concerning geographic expansion of the virus.” Although the risk of national and regional spread is high, he said, the risk outside the region remains low.

A total of 2,512 people have reported symptoms of hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's northeastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri since ‪Aug. 1, 2018. Among those cases, 2,418 tested positive for Ebola virus disease, which causes an often-fatal type of hemorrhagic fever, according to the latest bulletin from the country's health ministry.

The current outbreak has a case fatality rate of about 67%. There have been 1,676 deaths so far, including 1,582 from confirmed cases of Ebola and the rest from probable cases, according to the health ministry.

Two people, including a 5-year-old boy who tested positive for Ebola after traveling home to neighboring Uganda, also died, according to the Ugandan health ministry. The boy was the first cross-border case in the ongoing outbreak. There are currently no confirmed cases of Ebola in Uganda, according to the WHO.

The Ebola virus is transmitted through contact with blood or secretions from an infected person, either directly or through contaminated surfaces, needles or medical equipment. A patient is not contagious until they start showing signs of the disease. The virus is not airborne, which means a person cannot get the disease simply by breathing the same air as an infected patient.

Since Aug. 8, 2018, more than 163,500 people have been vaccinated against Ebola in the outbreak zone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, using an experimental vaccine developed by American pharmaceutical company Merck.

This outbreak is infecting more children than previous ones-- 31% of total cases as of July 7, compared to 20% in previous outbreaks, according to the United Nations Children's Fund.

"Young children -- those below five years old, are especially hard hit," UNICEF spokesperson Marixie Mercado said at a press briefing Tuesday in Geneva. "They, in turn, are infecting women. Among adults, women comprise 57% of cases."

This is the 10th outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the most severe in the Central African nation since 1976, when scientists first identified the virus near the eponymous Ebola River. It's second only to the 2014-2016 epidemic in multiple West African countries that infected 28,652 people and killed 11,325, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's also the first Ebola outbreak in history to occur in an active war zone. The WHO has recorded at least 198 attacks on health facilities and health workers in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo since January.