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WHO won’t declare DR Congo Ebola an international health emergency

Health workers put their Personal Protective Equipment on before entering the zone where people suspected of having Ebola are held in quarantine to be monitored and treated at the Ebola Transition Centre/Courtesy photo

Threat remains of spread to Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan

A meeting of an emergency World Health Organisation Committee (WHO) committee has said the current outbreak of the deadly Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the DR Congo does not constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) even if it has infected a possible 1206 people and killed 764.

Some commentators immediately said the Emergency Committee decision is likely to “trigger substantial debate as the virus continues to spread unabated”.

The death toll makes the DR Congo Ebola outbreak the second most deadly ever. The first ravaged West Africa and killed 11,300 people in Senegal, Liberia and Guinea.

The Emergency Committee was convened on April 12 in Geneva- Switzerland by the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, under the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005).

Before the meeting, there was speculation that the DR Congo Ebola outbreak could be declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). That would have triggered increasing international attention and donor funding. However, the Emergency Committee fell short of that.

“There is no added benefit to declaring a PHEIC at this stage,” the committee said in a statement after the meeting.

According to some reports, Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, disagreed with the Emergency Committee decision.

“I do think it’s a mistake. I do think conditions have been met for declaring it. It’s at least as serious as public health emergencies of international concern that have been declared so in the past,” Inglesby told STAT. “And I think it’s a mistake because I think it could have drawn in more international attention, political will and support.”

More must be done to contain this outbreak, he insisted.

“It needs to be made clear to all those who are involved that the current course that we’re on, despite the resources being brought to bear, despite WHO being completely in and flat out, it’s not enough,” Inglesby said.

The WHO, which along with DRC’s ministry of health is leading the outbreak response, has been under pressure for some time to declare a PHEIC, which is a tool of the International Health Regulations, a treaty to which WHO’s member states are party. Its first decision not to do so came in October.

Part of the problem is that the outbreak is occurring in what is effectively a war zone with multiple armed factions fighting the Congolese army as ineffective UN peacekeepers watch. Ebola treatment camps have been attacked and personnel killed by militias.

As a result, some countries, including the U.S, have refused to send personnel to the outbreak zone to help. Highly experienced experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, have been barred from working at the epicenter of the outbreak.

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