The World Health Organization on Friday decided not to declare the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo an international health emergency.
The quick response by the central African nation and WHO, the deployment of global health resources, and the pending use of an experimental vaccine make an international health emergency declaration unnecessary, said Dr. Robert Steffen, chairman of WHO’s emergency committee. A “vigorous response” to the deadly outbreak still needed to continue, and “without that the situation is likely to deteriorate significantly,” Steffen said at a news conference in Geneva.
A WHO declaration of international health emergency aims to draw global attention and trigger an escalated international response to a crisis with the potential to affect the world. WHO has only made such declarations four times since regulations were enacted in 2007: for swine flu in 2009, polio and Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016.
If the Ebola outbreak spreads further, Steffen said, committee members may reconsider whether to declare an international emergency.
Though 14 cases of Ebola have been officially confirmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 31 suspected or probable cases have been recorded, and the outbreak has spread to an urban area. In 25 cases, patients have died, Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the country’s minister of health, said in a statement. Four cases, including one of the fatalities, were in Wangata, a health zone in the regional capital of Mbandaka, home to 1.2 million people on the Congo River.
The move of the disease to an urban area located on what some have called the “superhighway of Central Africa” caused the WHO to revise its assessment of public health risk to “very high” at the national level and “high” at the regional level. The WHO still considers global risk from the outbreak to be “low.”
Steffen said nine neighboring countries have been supplied with equipment and personnel to monitor potential spread of Ebola. Airport exit screenings have begun at the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital of Kinshasa, and WHO is moving to screen people at ports along the Congo River.
More than 570 people who may have had contact with someone suspected of being ill are being tracked, according to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.
“We were really encouraged by what we had seen,” Tedros said of the response to the outbreak he saw during a visit last weekend. “There is strong coordination with government and partners.”
Tedros said more than 7,000 doses of an experimental vaccine are being sent, and some should be available beginning Sunday. WHO officials cited the vaccine as a key aid in tracing contacts, as it encourages people to be honest about possible Ebola exposure.
WHO advises other countries against imposing travel or trade restrictions on the Democratic Republic of Congo, which “needs our support & solidarity,” Tedros added in a tweet.
WHO said it has secured almost $9 million of the $26 million it needs from the international community to contain the outbreak. In contrast, the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people and infected 28,000 cost $3.6 billion to fight.
“The decision by WHO not to call a public health emergency of international concern is the right one for the time being,” Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Fund, a U.K. philanthropy that has donated $2.7 million to the outbreak, said in a statement.
“These measures, heightened surveillance in surrounding countries and coordinated global action give us the best possible chance to protect the communities and healthcare workers most at risk of Ebola,” Farrar continued. “However, we can’t predict how the outbreak will progress, and the WHO must keep the situation under frequent review.”
Jeremy Konyndyk, who helped lead the Obama administration response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, told HuffPost WHO made the right call “for now,” as the threshold for an international emergency declaration is “rightfully pretty high.”
When the 2014 outbreak was declared an international emergency, “weekly new case counts were in the hundreds, across three countries, and accelerating,” said Konyndyk, now a senior policy fellow for the Washington-based Center for Global Development. “That declaration should have been made sooner, but even so, the current situation in DRC is nowhere close to that. New case counts are around 2-4 per day, in a single country, and not accelerating.”
That WHO considered the emergency declaration only 10 days after being notified about the first cases ― a contrast with the months-long delay in the 2014 outbreak ― shows the seriousness of the response, Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told HuffPost.
Jha said he agreed with WHO’s decision, but said the spread of Ebola to an urban area is highly concerning.
Other experts, including former Obama administration Ebola czar Ronald Klain, also urged continued caution.