International community urged to back Ebola response in DR Congo

A health worker screens for Ebola at the border.

After the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday declared the Ebola crisis in the DR Congo a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the international community is being urged to step up, and put its full support behind the Ebola response.

Normally, a PHEIC is a formal declaration by the WHO of an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response, formulated when a situation arises that is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected.

Under such circumstances, the event carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border and may require immediate international action.

The PHEIC emergency provision is the highest level of alarm the organisation can sound and has only been used four times previously.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO Regional Director for Africa, tweeted: “I urge the international community to step up and put its full support behind the Ebola response.”

The declaration, the organization stressed, is not a reflection on the performance of the Ebola response team in DR Congo.

“It is a measure that recognises the possible increased national and regional risks and the need for intensified and coordinated action to manage them.”

The move by the WHO comes after the first case of Ebola was this week detected in DR Congo’s border densely populated city of Goma which is so close to the Rwandan border.

The outbreak in DR Congo has, reportedly, killed more than 1,600 people.

The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Ebola in DR Congo provided public health advice for neighbouring countries. At risk countries, it said, should work urgently with partners to improve their preparedness for detecting and managing imported cases, including the mapping of health facilities and active surveillance with zero reporting.

Countries are advised to continue mapping population movements and sociological patterns that can predict risk of disease spread.

 At risk countries are also advised to put in place approvals for investigational medicines and vaccines as an immediate priority for preparedness.


No need for travel restrictions  

The Committee also advised that no country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel and trade.

It said: “Such measures are usually implemented out of fear and have no basis in science. They push the movement of people and goods to informal border crossings that are not monitored, thus increasing the chances of the spread of the disease.”

“Most critically, these restrictions can also compromise local economies and negatively affect response operations from a security and logistical perspective.”

National authorities are urged to work with airlines and other transport and tourism industries to ensure that they do not exceed WHO’s advice on international traffic. The IHR Emergency Committee also does not consider entry screening at airports or other ports of entry outside the region to be necessary.

"It is time for the world to take notice," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva when the PHEIC declaration was made.

 "Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of DRC, not to impose punitive and counter-productive restrictions that will only serve to isolate DRC.”

 Ghebreyesus said that the government of DR Congo is doing everything it can and “they need the support of the international community,” he said, noting that the required support includes financial support.

 “Unless the international community steps up and funds the response now, we will be paying for this outbreak for a long time to come.”

 The latest DR Congo Ebola outbreak was declared on August 1, 2018.

Rwanda intensified the surveillance and screening at all points of entry, at health facilities, and at community levels. It also embarked on robust community awareness and mobilisation, vaccination of frontline workers, created an EVD treatment centre, and stepped up surveillance, among other measures.

Early this year, the Ministry of Health launched an Ebola campaign in which health and frontline health workers were immunised against the virus to protect them in case they have to deal with suspected or confirmed Ebola cases.

The Cabinet approved the use of an experimental drug – recombinant vesicular stomatitis virus vaccination – for the protection against the virus.

Rwanda has since trained 23, 657 people, including medical personnel at various levels, police officers, and Red Cross volunteers in preparation to deal with an outbreak.