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Ebola outbreak in Congo declared global health emergency

A worker from the World Health Organization decontaminates

A worker from the World Health Organization decontaminates the doorway of a house on a plot where two cases of Ebola were found, in the village of Mabalako, in eastern Congo, on June 17. Credit: AP / Al-hadji Kudra Maliro

The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a global public health emergency Wednesday, a designation many international medical leaders say should have been issued months ago.

WHO’s decision on the growing epidemic followed a meeting of its International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, which formally declared a “public health emergency of international concern.”

“This is the largest alarm bell that the WHO can ring. It’s equivalent to the president of the United States declaring a national emergency. This is an all-hands-on-deck major alert,” said Dr. Eric Cioe Pena, director of global health for the Northwell Health system.

“One of the criticisms of the WHO was that they didn’t do this before,” Cioe Pena said. “This is now the second-largest outbreak in the history of Ebola.”

He said declaring a global health emergency should help rivet international attention on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and inspire wealthy nations to provide money and personnel to help end the outbreak.

The deadly hemorrhagic virus has moved swiftly through the landlocked nation, infecting more than 2,500 people since August and killing nearly 1,700. Some patients in small villages have been difficult to reach, and the armed conflict that has occurred in the midst of the outbreak has interrupted epidemic containment efforts. Rebels have killed villagers and health care workers at the epicenter of one of the world’s worst outbreaks of a lethal virus.

“It is time for the world to take notice,” Dr. Tedros  Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said in a statement. He called on the international community to help end the crisis.

Ghebreyesus, who is Ethiopian and the first African to lead the global health agency, said the health emergency declared by the WHO should not be taken as a sign that Congolese people should be stigmatized by the rest of the world.

“This is about mothers, fathers and children,” Ghebreyesus said, noting, “Too often entire families are stricken. At the heart of this are communities and individual tragedies.”

The formal declaration of a global health emergency came after the fourth time the WHO International Health Regulations Emergency Committee had convened in recent months to consider the decision. The outbreak has been escalating for months and took an ominous turn earlier this week with the announcement of the first case in a large metropolitan area, the city of Goma, near the Rwandan border. The patient died, and the case ignited fears that Ebola might spread in the city of 2 million people.

Added to the Ebola crisis has been a deadly measles outbreak that has claimed the lives of hundreds of people, mostly children. 

“The WHO is very concerned right now that Ebola can spread and infection control measures need to be put in place,” said Dr. Luis Marcos, associate professor of clinical medicine at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine.

Marcos said he doesn’t think the explosive outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo poses a risk for the United States. It does, however, threaten neighboring African countries, rendering the epidemic increasingly reminiscent of the 2014 through 2016 West African Ebola outbreak in which 28,616 people were infected and 11,310 died.

Without the resources of wealthy nations, it will be difficult to contain the outbreak, Marcos said.

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