Global health emergency declared over deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo

“This is an emergency. There is a very real risk that the Ebola outbreak could spread to neighboring countries, so the international community should urgently come together to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef

BENI DR Congo (AP) – The World Health Organization has declared a global health emergency over the long-simmering Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the deadly virus spread to a populous border city with Rwanda.

More than 1,600 people have died since August in the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, according to the WHO. And more than 30 new cases are being reported each month in northeast DRC, which is largely a regional war zone.

The epicenter is the city of Beni, where 46% of all new cases have been reported in the past three weeks, according to the WHO emergency committee studying the latest outbreak.

It was the fourth meeting of the Emergency Committee since the outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, 2018.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the committee called the situation in Beni “difficult and worrisome.” The committee reported 2,512 confirmed or probable current cases, including 136 health workers affected, and 40 deaths.

In this photo taken on Saturday, July 13, 2019, a nurse vaccinates a child against Ebola in Beni, Congo DRC. The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola outbreak an international emergency after spreading to eastern Congo’s biggest city, Goma, this week. (Photo: Jerome Delay, AP)

This is the fifth global emergency declaration in history. Previous emergencies were declared for the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the emergence of Zika in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic and polio.

Henrietta Fore, executive director of Unicef, said in a statement: “This is an emergency. There is a very real risk that the Ebola outbreak could spread to neighboring countries, so the international community should urgently come together to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The emergency declaration follows the discovery of a case 150 miles to the south of Beni in Goma, a city of 2 million with an international airport on the border with Rwanda.

Ebola is a highly contagious virus that spreads through direct contact with body fluids. It kills about 50% of those infected, many by bleeding internally and externally. There is no cure or specific treatment that is currently approved for market although some vaccines have showed promise. 

The pastor who brought Ebola to Goma used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city, Congolese officials said, according to the Associated Press.  The man died and health workers were trying to track down dozens of his contacts, including those who had traveled on the same bus.

In addition, a sick Congolese fish trader traveled to Uganda and back while symptomatic – and later died of Ebola.

WHO’s emergency committee said the challenges in combating the outbreak included gaining community acceptance of the threat, delays in detecting and isolation the virus and difficulty in tracing potential carriers in a highly mobile population.

Local authorities are focusing on cross-border screening and screening at main internal roads and sharing the information with other surveillance teams. WHO warned against any wholesale shutdown of border crossings that it said could case major economic distress in targeted areas and stifle cooperation.

“Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders – coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities – to shoulder more of the burden,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Tedros. director-general of WHO, said on Wednesday.

The emergency working group noted that vaccine supplies are currently insufficient, but said that Merck, the American pharmaceutical company, planned to double the supply.

Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said she hoped the emergency designation would prompt a radical reset of Ebola response efforts.

“The reality check is that a year into the epidemic, it’s still not under control, and we are not where we should be,” she said. “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results.”

Liu said vaccination strategies should be broadened and that more efforts should be made to build trust within communities.