Long-running Ebola outbreak is now an international health emergency, say experts

Tuesday, February 5, 2019
By Paul Martin

By Anne Gulland

The current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is now so severe it should be declared an international health emergency, experts have warned.

In an article in the Lancet medical journal a group of international lawyers has urged the World Health Organization to declare the situation a public health emergency of international concern, which they hope would shine an international spotlight on the outbreak, currently the second largest in history.

Since the outbreak was declared last August there have been 774 cases of the disease and 481 deaths, and emergency responders have had to contend with outbreaks of violence and high levels of mistrust among the affected communities.

WHO’s emergency committee last met in October but since that time the number of cases of the disease have tripled, the outbreak has expanded into 18 health zones and governments have withdrawn personnel “fearing for their safety”, the Lancet warns. And the risk of the disease spreading across the border to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan is also high.

Mark Eccleston-Turner, one of the authors of the Lancet paper and a law lecturer at Keele University, said that declaring an international health emergency would not give WHO any more funding but he added: “Its main function is as a signal to the international community that this outbreak is serious, it requires more effort, more resources and a coordinated international response.”

At the beginning of the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which eventually led to nearly 30,000 cases including 11,000 deaths, the WHO came in for heavy criticism for being slow to grasp its severity and to declare an international emergency.

Dr Eccleston-Turner said that when an international health emergency was finally declared in August 2014 it triggered the involvement of the United Nations which described the outbreak as a threat to global peace and security.

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