An Ebola health worker at the scene of the latest Ebola outbreak, Bikoro Hospital, DRC
On 12 May 2018 in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a health worker at Bikoro Hospital, the epicenter of the latest Ebola outbreak in the DRC. (Credit: WHO)

The World Health Organization Just Declared an Ebola “Emergency” in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here’s What That Means

The ongoing ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is officially a public health emergency, according to the World Health Organization.

Specifically, the WHO today designated the outbreak as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” or PHEIC in UN-speak. This is a bureaucratic term of art for the WHO and it carries significant policy implications for how the world is now expected to respond to this crisis.

The designation triggers a certain set of procedures that the members of the World Health Organization, which included nearly every country in the world, agreed in advance to adopt when an emergency is declared. It does not mandate a travel ban or anything like that–rather, the designation is intended to streamline and enable a more robust response to an ongoing crisis. This includes things like freeing up some emergency funding and ensuring that visas for foreign health workers are expeditiously processed.  The designation comes at the recommendation of an independent outside panel of experts, who twice before declined to recommend that the WHO issue such a declaration.

What seemed to tip their calculations this time was the confirmation of ebola in the city of Goma, a large border city that serves as a regional transit hub.

“This is a regional emergency, and by no means a global threat,” said Prof Robert Steffen, Chair of the IHR Emergency Committee on Ebola in DRC in a press conference announcing this declaration.

“Our assessment is that the risk of spread inside DRC and the region is high, and the risk outside the region is low,” said WHO director general Dr. Tedros.  “The WHO does not recommend any restrictions on trade or travel. Closing borders could have disasterous consequences on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region.” He added. “Closing the borders would serve no useful purpose. We call on all countries, companies and individuals to respect this recommendation.”

The current outbreak is the second worst in human history.

The emergency declaration comes after more than  people have already been sickened by ebola in the DRC, and over TK killed. This makes it the second deadliest after the calamitous outbreak in west Africa three years ago.

But unlike western Africa, where ebola had never struck before 2012, the DRC is no stranger to ebola outbreaks.  And in recent years health authorities in the country and international partners have successfully stopped outbreaks before they rose to the “emergency” level. But this outbreak is different from the previous one because it is affecting regions of the country in which there is ongoing conflict. This has seriously undermined the ability of health authorities to do the on-the-ground contact tracing and ring vaccination that are key elements of ebola elimination strategies. New cases keep popping up. Also, as the director of operations for MSF/Doctors without borders in the DRC told me, there is a huge lack of trust between health workers and affected communities which is complicating efforts to reach high-risk communities with prevention and mitigation efforts. This is why, says MSF’s Karin TK new cases of ebola keep popping up with no real end in sight.

The designation of this outbreak as a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” should wake the world to the urgency of focusing resources and attention around stopping this outbreak before it gets much worse.

Late last month I spoke with Ambassador John Lange, senior fellow for global health with the United Nations Foundation. He discussed what makes this ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo so different from previous outbreaks and explains what the World Health Organization and the broader international community can do to bring this outbreak to heel.



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