The World Health Organisation said yesterday that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo does not qualify as an international threat, despite the spread of the virus to neighbouring Uganda carried by an infected family.
The closely-watched decision followed advice from WHO’s emergency committee, which only meets to review the world’s most severe outbreaks.
The head of the UN health agency Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is in DRC reviewing the Ebola response, said he accepted the committee’s advice.
“Although the outbreak does not at this time pose a global health threat, I want to emphasise that for the affected families and communities, this outbreak is very much an emergency,” Tedros told reporters.
He also appealed for more funds to combat the ongoing Ebola flare-up, which has recorded more than 2,000 cases, including over 1,400 deaths, since it emerged in eastern DRC in August.
Yesterday’s emergency committee meeting was prompted by confirmation this week of Ebola deaths in a western Uganda region that borders DRC.
The WHO panel has used the label “public health emergency of international concern” only four times previously.
Those included the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic of 2009, the spread of poliovirus in 2014, the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the surge of the Zika virus in 2016.
This is the third time the WHO panel has considered — but held off — making the emergency call for this DRC outbreak, which has been concentrated in the restive provinces of Ituri and North Kivu.
The head of the committee, Preben Aavitsland, told reporters in Geneva that current Ebola crisis was “an extraordinary event, with risk of international spread, (but) the ongoing response would not be enhanced” by an emergency declaration.
The Uganda cases stem from a Congolese woman, married to a Ugandan, who travelled with her mother, three children and their nanny to DRC to care for her ill father, who later died of Ebola.
WHO said 12 members of the family who attended the burial in Congo were placed in isolation in the DRC, but six “escaped and crossed over to Uganda” on June 9.
The next day, a five-year-old boy was admitted to hospital in Bwera, a border town, vomiting blood before he died.
Tests confirmed he had Ebola and the family was placed in an isolation ward.
His three-year-old brother was also confirmed to have Ebola, as was their grandmother, who died late Wednesday.
Speaking from western Uganda’s Kasese district, a senior Red Cross official said that “the biggest challenge” was ensuring robust monitoring along the porous border with DRC.
“People are continuing to come in to the country and not passing through the areas where screening is taking place, because screening has been instituted along certain points of entry but not all the points,” said Josephine Okwera, the director of health and social services for the Ugandan Red Cross.
Health officials had initially hoped that they could contain the outbreak with help from a new vaccine, which has now been given to more than 130,000 people in DRC.
But chronic violence and militia activity in the affected eastern DRC provinces as well as hostility to medical teams among some in the region have hampered the response.
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