The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that the deadly Ebola virus is now an outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ebola is now a global health emergency after the confirmation of another case in Goma.
The WHO announcement of a global health emergency in Congo is the fifth 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.
Meanwhile, Goma is one of the most populated cities in the country, with a population of more than two million people. Goma sits just south of the epicenter of the outbreak, near the border with Rwanda. More particularly, Goma is in a regional crossroads in northeastern Congo on the Rwandan border and also has an International airport.
More than 1,600 people have died since August. Last month, the outbreak spilled across the Congo border for the first time when a family brought the virus into Uganda after attending the burial of an infected relative. There were also reports that a Congolese fish trader died from Ebola after traveling to Uganda and back.
However, the outbreak in Congo has been ongoing for almost a year, with 2,418 confirmed cases and 1,676 deaths. The WHO estimates 12 new cases are reported daily, making the situation the second deadliest Ebola epidemic ever.
In relation, the WHO only defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. But 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 experts say it has long met the required conditions.
Although a global health emergency declaration significantly raises more awareness about the severity of the issue in Congo and can bring in more financial, technical, and medical support from nearby countries, it also raises apprehension and fear from an already tense country.
Congo is currently considered as a hostile area with armed rebels plaguing the country. The WHO reports there have been almost 200 attacks against health care workers and patients since January.
“The assassination of two Ebola workers demonstrates the continued risk to responders due to the security situation,” WHO emergency committee chair, Robert Steffen said.
Other than armed militia groups, mitigating the Ebola epidemic also faces another challenge regarding apprehension and raised fear from other countries that often result in borders closing and trade restrictions to and from affected countries.
Consequently, the declaration becomes counterproductive — as medical supplies and other valuable resources will be challenging getting to and from Congo in particular. Hence, the primary reasons why the WHO responded late regarding the global health emergency declaration.
Along with the declaration, the WHO adviced that countries should not close any borders. As of the moment, the WHO believes that the risk of the virus spreading beyond the region remains low.
“Our risk assessment remains that the risk of Ebola spread in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region remains very high, and the risk of spread outside the region remains low,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after the announcement in Geneva that the international emergency “should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help.”
The Ebola virus is spread through contact with blood and other bodily fluids. It can cause massive internal bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, and death. An outbreak often starts with a “spillover event,” meaning the virus is transmitted from an animal — usually, a fruit bat or monkey — to a human. Then, the virus can spread from person to person.
There is no cure for Ebola right now, and doctors can only use supportive fluids and electrolytes to help counter the side effects of high fever, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Fortunately, the West Africa outbreak spurred work toward a safe and highly effective Ebola vaccine that is being used to combat the spread of the virus, especially to health care workers and anybody who gets in contact with an infected person.