WHO Says Ebola Outbreak Is Not An International Public Health Emergency

Jun 14, 2019
Originally published on June 14, 2019 5:34 pm

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

The Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo "does not meet the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern," the World Health Organization said Friday. The agency said that while the outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo constitutes a health emergency for that country and the region, the risk of it spreading beyond that region is low.

The WHO announced the decision days after the first new Ebola cases were reported in neighboring Uganda, where a 5-year-old boy died from the disease on Wednesday after traveling from the DRC. Two of his relatives — his grandmother and 3-year-old brother — tested positive for Ebola. On Thursday Uganda's Ministry of Health announced that the grandmother had also died.

"The cluster of Ebola cases in Uganda is not unexpected," the WHO said as it announced the decision. It added that the rapid response and containment plan that was put in place along the DRC's eastern border with Uganda has worked well.

Uganda is monitoring dozens of people who had contact with the family whose members were the country's first Ebola patients. On Thursday, the dead boy's father and mother, the 3-year-old brother, a 6-month-old baby and their maid were sent back to the DRC. Uganda's Health Ministry said they voluntarily agreed to return — and that five more of their relatives in the DRC have tested positive for Ebola.

As of Friday, Uganda had only one suspected case of Ebola in its treatment unit, according to Ugandan Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng. She added that the patient was in isolation, awaiting test results.

Preben Aavitsland, acting chair of the WHO's International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, said that "while the outbreak is an extraordinary event, and there's risk of international spread, we believe that the ongoing response would not be enhanced" by the formal steps that an international emergency declaration would trigger.

Issuing a number of recommendations, Aavitsland said the emergency committee strongly advises against imposing any international travel or trade restrictions. He also said it "does not consider entry screening at airports or other ports of entry to be necessary."

The current Ebola outbreak began late last summer. As of Wednesday, 2,014 cases and 1,317 deaths in the DRC region were confirmed to be caused by the disease, the WHO said.

Friday marks the third time the emergency committee has reviewed the deadly outbreak and determined that it does not meet the WHO's criteria for an international public health emergency. The committee "extensively debated" the question, Aavitsland said.

As he discussed the decision, Aavitsland made what he called his most important point: "The committee is deeply disappointed that WHO and the affected countries have not received the funding and resources needed for this outbreak."

Addressing the international community, he added, "Step up funding."

As officials work to limit the spread of Ebola, Uganda's health minister urged everyone in her nation to be vigilant about washing their hands, and "to AVOID shaking hands and any form of body contact as the country faces this Ebola outbreak."

Aceng also said she discourages anyone from holding mass gatherings, where the disease could spread.

As NPR's Scott Neuman recently reported:

"Ebola is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva and vomit. Initial symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain and chills. Later symptoms can include internal bleeding, vomiting and coughing up blood. On average, half of the people who contract Ebola die as a result of the disease."

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