WHO declares DR Congo Ebola crisis public health emergency

Health workers in protective gear at an Ebola treatment center in Beni, Eastern DR Congo. Net photo.

The World Health Organization has declared the Ebola crisis in the DR Congo a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), urging international community to step up its support for response.

The PHEIC is a formal declaration by the UN agency in charge of world health matters of an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease.

The decision to declare a public health emergency of international concern potentially requires a coordinated international response.

It is the highest level of alarm WHO can sound and has only been used four times previously.

The latest declaration, the WHO said, is a measure that recognises the possible increased national and regional risks and the need for intensified and coordinated action to manage the risks.

The development came after the first case of Ebola was last weekend detected in DR Congo’s city of Goma – which is so close to the Rwandan border.

Goma, a commercial hub teeming with international agencies and businesses, is seen as major gateway to the rest of DR Congo.

The Ebola case in Goma was reported after a man who had come from the Congolese city of Butembo arrived in the border town of over a million people was diagnosed with the virus.

The man, a pastor, has since died.

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

PHEIC ‘not for fundraising’

On Wednesday, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Ebola in DR Congo recommended that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, declares the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.

He accepted the advice, explaining that a PHEIC is not for fundraising, but “for preventing the international spread of disease.”

The Government in Kinshasa is doing everything it can (to contain the deadly virus), Dr Tedros said, adding that they need the support of the international community, including financial support.

“WHO is not aware of any donor that has withheld funding because a PHEIC had not been declared. But if that was the excuse, it can no longer be used,” he added.

“We are now finalising the fourth Strategic Response Plan for this outbreak, which will outline the resources needed for the next phase of the response. We don’t have an exact sum yet, but it will run to the hundreds of millions.”

The committee made several other recommendations for DR Congo, its neighbours and other countries, including advising that no country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel and trade, as a result of the current Ebola outbreak.

“The global community should anticipate possible negative consequences and proactively prevent them from occurring, taking into account experience with Ebola in West Africa in 2014,” reads part of the statement of the IHR Emergency Committee.

Current situation in DR Congo

A WHO review of the current situation in DR Congo indicated that factors affecting the outbreak include population movement in highly densely populated areas; and weak infection and prevention control practices in many health facilities.

Others include complex political environment; continued reluctance in the community; and the ongoing unstable security situation, which led to recent murders of two community health workers.

More than 70 entry points are being monitored and 75 million screenings have been conducted, with 22 cases detected in this manner.

Beni, another major Congolese township about 44 kilometers north of Butembo, is the main hotspot.

The Beni region remains the epicentre of the outbreak, with 46% of the cases over the last three weeks.

Over 1,600 people have since died from the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in DR Congo since August last year, with thousands more cases have been confirmed.

In Rwanda, the Government has called on the population to remain calm as no single Ebola case has been registered in the country.

Ebola outbreaks in neighbouring DR Congo and Uganda, the Ministry of Health said early this week, are taken seriously and surveillance is intensified at all ports of entry as well as at community level.

“There is no single case of Ebola in Rwanda. We are taking this issue seriously and continue to scale up preventive efforts,” Malick Kayumba, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Health, told The New Times on Thursday.

He added: “We remind everyone to seriously consider the precautionary measures we continue to share through different channels.”

Kigali has also embarked on robust community awareness and mobilisation, vaccination of frontline workers, creating EVD treatment centres, and stepping up surveillance.

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

According to Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola symptoms may appear anywhere from 2-21 days after contact with the virus, with an average of 8-10 days. But experts say that many common illnesses can have these same symptoms, including influenza or malaria.

Recovery from EVD depends on good supportive clinical care and the patient’s immune response, CDC says.