Congo ebola outbreak declared a global health emergency

An ebola outbreak in Congo was declared a global health emergency on July 17 after 1,600 deaths since August 2018. The closing of Congolese borders, however, could lead to economic problems in the future. 

Jerome Delay/AP
Health workers wearing protective suits take their shift at a treatment center in Beni, Congo July 13, 2019. The World Health Organization declared an international emergency July 17 because of ebola breakouts.

A WHO expert committee declined on three previous occasions to advise the United Nations health agency to make the declaration for this outbreak, even though other experts say it has long met the required conditions. More than 1,600 people have died since August in the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, which is unfolding in a region described as a war zone.

A declaration of a global health emergency often brings greater international attention and aid, along with concerns that nervous governments might overreact with border closures.

The declaration comes days after a single case was confirmed in Goma, a major regional crossroads in northeastern Congo on the Rwandan border, with an international airport. Also, a sick Congolese fish trader traveled to Uganda and back while symptomatic – and later died of Ebola.

While the risk of regional spread remains high, the risk outside the region remains low, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after the announcement in Geneva.

The international emergency "should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help," he said. Tedros insisted that the declaration was not made to raise more money – even though WHO estimated "hundreds of millions" of dollars would be needed to stop the epidemic.

Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, said she hoped the emergency designation would prompt a radical reset of Ebola response efforts.

"The reality check is that a year into the epidemic, it's still not under control, and we are not where we should be," she said. "We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results."

Ms. Liu said vaccination strategies should be broadened and that more efforts should be made to build trust within communities.

The U.S. Agency for International Development applauded the WHO decision and said USAID officials would "continue to scale up life-saving support" to end the outbreak.

This is the fifth such declaration in history. Previous emergencies were declared for the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the emergence of Zika in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic, and polio.

WHO defines a global emergency as an "extraordinary event" that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. Last month, the outbreak spilled across the border for the first time when a family brought the virus into Uganda after attending the burial in Congo of an infected relative. Even then, the expert committee advised against a declaration.

Alexandra Phelan, a global health expert at Georgetown University Law Center, said Wednesday's declaration was long overdue.

"This essentially serves as a call to the international community that they have to step up appropriate financial and technical support," she said but warned that countries should be wary of imposing travel or trade restrictions.

Such restrictions "would actually restrict the flow of goods and health care workers into affected countries so they are counterproductive," she said. Future emergency declarations might be perceived as punishment and "might result in other countries not reporting outbreaks in the future, which puts us all at greater risk."

WHO had been heavily criticized for its sluggish response to the West Africa outbreak, which it repeatedly declined to declare a global emergency until the virus was spreading explosively in three countries and nearly 1,000 people were dead. Internal documents later showed WHO held off partly out of fear a declaration would anger the countries involved and hurt their economies.

The organization's emergency committee will meet again within three months to assess the situation. Committee members will review whether the outbreak is still a global emergency and whether other measures are needed.

Wednesday's announcement prompted fear in eastern Congo, where many do business across borders and travel overseas.
"I am vaccinated and I protect myself against Ebola," said Zoe Kibwana, a shoe salesman who does business in Uganda, just 40 miles from Beni. "Closing the borders would handicap our economy. The health ministry and WHO need to end this epidemic as soon as possible."

The current outbreak is spreading in a turbulent Congo border region where dozens of rebel groups are active and where Ebola had not been experienced before. Efforts to contain the virus have been hurt by mistrust among wary locals that has prompted deadly attacks on health workers. Some infected people have deliberately evaded health authorities.

The pastor who brought Ebola to Goma used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city, Congolese officials said. WHO on Tuesday said the man had died and health workers were scrambling to trace dozens of his contacts, including those who had traveled on the same bus.

Congo's minister of health resisted the characterization of the outbreak as a health emergency.

"We accept the decision of the committee of experts but one hopes that it's a decision that wasn't made under pressure of certain groups that want to use this as a way to raise funds for certain humanitarian actors," said Dr. Oly Ilunga.

Those working in the field say the outbreak is clearly taking a turn for the worse despite advances that include the widespread use of an experimental but effective Ebola vaccine.

Dr. Maurice Kakule was one of the first people to survive the current outbreak after he fell ill while treating a woman last July, before the outbreak had even been declared.

"What is clear is that Ebola is an emergency because the epidemic persists despite every possible effort to educate people," he told the Geneva meeting.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Krista Larson and Al-Hadji Kudra Maliro in Beni, Congo, and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, also contributed to this report.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Congo ebola outbreak declared a global health emergency
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2019/0718/Congo-ebola-outbreak-declared-a-global-health-emergency
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe