UN tries to ease fears over latest Ebola outbreak
THE ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo does not yet warrant being declared a global emergency but is of ‘‘deep concern,’’ the World Health Organisation says.
Following a meeting of its expert committee yesterday, the United Nations health agency called for efforts to be redoubled to stop the deadly virus, noting that a recent spike in cases raised the risk of it spreading to other countries.
The outbreak, announced on August 1 last year, has become the second-deadliest in history, behind the West African one from 2014-16 that killed more than 11,300 people. Congo’s health ministry has reported 1206 confirmed and probable cases, including 764 deaths.
This is the second time the committee has decided that the outbreak is not yet a global emergency. Chairman Robert Steffen said the experts had feared that making such a declaration might even hurt response efforts.
Ahead of the WHO announcement, a top Red Cross official said he was ‘‘more concerned than I have ever been’’ about Ebola’s possible regional spread.
Emanuele Capobianco, head of health and care at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, cited Congolese health ministry data showing 40 new cases over two days this week. He called that rate unprecedented during the outbreak.
The WHO had said it is woefully short of the US$148 million (NZ$218m) needed to fight Ebola for the next six months. To date, the agency has received only US$74m.
This outbreak, occurring close to the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, has been like no other. Mistrust has been high in a region that has never faced an Ebola outbreak before, and insecurity caused by rebel groups has hurt aid efforts.
Rebecca Katz, a global health security expert at Georgetown University, called the WHO’s decision disappointing, saying the agency and its experts were ‘‘taking too narrow of an interpretation’’ of what constituted an international emergency.
Ahead of the announcement, Trish Newport, Doctors Without Borders’ representative in Goma, a major crossroads city close to the outbreak, said declaring a global emergency would not necessarily help to stop the epidemic. She called for a new approach, saying that after nine months of the same strategy ‘‘the epidemic is definitely not under control’’.
Newport said 75 per cent of new Ebola cases had no obvious link to previous patients, meaning that officials had lost track of where the virus was spreading.
A health worker sprays disinfectant on his colleague after working at an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, eastern Congo.