By Sola Ogundipe
The World Health Organization, WHO, has declared the Ebola virus outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a public health emergency of international concern.
The declaration issued Wednesday in Geneva, indicates there’s a potential spread of Ebola Virus Disease, EVD, to other countries and prepares the international community for a coordinated response.
The declaration followed a meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee for EVD in the DRC.
The Committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of the DRC and the world.
Declaring the emergency, WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, however said traveling restrictions were not being placed on the region in order not to encourage travelers to use unmonitored border crossings, and increase the potential for spread of the disease.
‘This is about mothers, fathers and children – too often entire families are stricken. At the heart of this are communities and individual tragedies.
“The public health emergency should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help.
“Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of DRC, not impose punitive and counterproductive restrictions that will only serve to isolate DRC.
“Although there is no evidence yet of local Ebola transmission in either Goma, DRC or Uganda, these two events represent a concerning geographical expansion of the virus,” Tedros noted.
The announcement came just as the Uganda Ministry of Health and WHO said a woman traveled from the DRC to Uganda to trade at a market before returning to the DRC, where she died of Ebola.
The last time WHO declared a global emergency for Ebola was during an outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people between 2013 and 2016.
The WHO said more than 75 million Ebola screenings have been conducted at border crossings and other checkpoints since the outbreak.
The Committee expressed disappointment about delays in funding which have constrained the response. They also reinforced the need to protect livelihoods of the people most affected by the outbreak by keeping transport routes and borders open.
“It is important that the world follows these recommendations. It is also crucial that states do not use the public health emergency as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region,” said Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the Emergency Committee.
Since it was declared almost a year ago the outbreak has been classified as a level 3 emergency – the most serious – by WHO, triggering the highest level of mobilisation from WHO.
The UN has also recognized the seriousness of the emergency by activating the Humanitarian System-wide Scale-Up to support the Ebola response.