WHO sounds Ebola alarm as risks intensify

A Democratic Republic of Congo Health Ministry worker checking people's temperature in Goma, where a pastor died this month. The country is in the grip of an Ebola outbreak, its worst ever, with almost 1,700 dead.
A Democratic Republic of Congo Health Ministry worker checking people's temperature in Goma, where a pastor died this month. The country is in the grip of an Ebola outbreak, its worst ever, with almost 1,700 dead.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

It emphasises that disease outbreak in Congo remains regional rather than global threat

GENEVA • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared Congo's Ebola outbreak a global health emergency, sounding a rarely used alarm after the virus threatened to spread to a major city and into neighbouring countries.

Despite a highly effective vaccine and a swift international response after it began last August, the outbreak has proved tenacious in an unstable region beset by violence. The outbreak is the Democratic Republic of Congo's worst ever, with almost 1,700 dead.

A vast campaign of vigilance and vaccination, with almost 75 million screenings, has kept the highly infectious virus almost entirely confined to two provinces in north-eastern Congo. The emergency committee of international health experts that advises WHO had thrice declined to declare an emergency.

But this month, a pastor died after travelling to Goma, a city of 2 million and a gateway to other countries in the region. On Wednesday, the WHO said a fisherwoman had died in Congo after vomiting spells at a market in neighbouring Uganda. It is believed she had also travelled to Rwanda, a Ugandan health ministry report said.

"The committee is concerned that a year into the outbreak, there are worrying signs of possible extension of the epidemic," the committee's report on Wednesday said.

The committee had been under pressure from many experts who felt the scale of the outbreak and the risks meant it had to be given the emergency status - only the fifth such disease outbreak since the WHO introduced such designations in 2005.

The previous international emergencies, under a system introduced after the 2004 Asian Sars epidemic, were the 2013-2016 West African Ebola epidemic that killed over 11,300 people, the 2009 flu pandemic, polio in 2014, and the Zika virus that caused a spate of birth defects across Latin America.

The WHO committee's chairman, Professor Robert Steffen, tempered the outbreak's designation as an emergency by saying it remained a regional, rather than a global threat, and stressed that no country should react to Ebola by closing borders or restricting trade.

The organisation also warned that the nearby countries of Rwanda, South Sudan, Burundi and Uganda are most at risk, while Central African Republic, Angola, Tanzania, Republic of Congo and Zambia are in a second tier.

This week, WHO flagged the need for hundreds of millions of dollars to prevent the outbreak from claiming more lives.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2019, with the headline 'WHO sounds Ebola alarm as risks intensify'. Print Edition | Subscribe