In this photograph taken Sunday July 14, 2019, a morgue employee walks with a cross past others disinfecting the entrance to the morgue in Beni, Congo DRC. The head of the World Health Organization is convening a meeting of experts Wednesday July 17, 2019 to decide whether the Ebola outbreak should be declared an international emergency after spreading to eastern Congo's biggest city, Goma, this week. More than 1,600 people in eastern Congo have died as the virus has spread in areas too dangerous for health teams to access. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
A worker disinfects the entrance to the morgue at Goma © AP

The World Health Organization has declared an international emergency over the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has killed more than 1,600 people over the past year and shows no sign of declining.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, announced that the outbreak was now a “public health emergency of international concern” after a meeting of the UN-affiliated organisation’s emergency committee in Geneva. 

“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak,” said Dr Tedros. “Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.” 

Medical experts outside the WHO welcomed the decision. Many said it should have been taken months ago to strengthen the international battle against Ebola and pull in more funds for public health measures.

The WHO committee cited several recent developments in recommending the emergency declaration. This includes the first confirmed Ebola case in Goma, a city of almost 2m people on the border with Rwanda and a gateway between the DRC and the rest of the world.

REFILE - CORRECTING STYLE A Congolese health worker administers an ebola vaccine to a man at the Himbi Health Centre in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, July 17, 2019. REUTERS/Olivia Acland
Aid workers administer vaccines in Goma © Reuters

But the WHO urged countries in the region to keep transport routes and borders open. “It is crucial that states do not use the [declaration] as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region,” said Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the emergency committee.

In response, Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, said: “I hope that today’s decision serves as a wake-up call to drive high-level political action, improved co-ordination and greater funding to support DRC in their efforts to stop this devastating epidemic.”

“This support must . . . contribute to vital work at the community level, providing the dedicated teams fighting this epidemic on the ground with the support they need and deserve.”

But Prof Steffen said the world should not overreact to the emergency declaration: “This is still a regional emergency and in no way a global threat.”

The WHO is preparing a new strategic plan to control and then end the epidemic, which will require a substantial increase in funding from donors. Michael Ryan, head of the organisation’s emergency operations, said: “The public health programme has been costed in excess of $233m.”

At present, only one Ebola vaccine is being used in the DRC, developed by Merck of the US. “We are very concerned that supplies of the Merck vaccine will run out before this epidemic ends, which would have devastating consequences,” said Josie Golding, epidemics lead at the medical charity Wellcome. 

TOPSHOT - A woman washes her hands with chlorine as a health worker mans a washing station on July 15, 2019 in Goma. - Authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo have appealed for calm after a preacher fell ill with Ebola in the eastern city of Goma, the first recorded case of the disease in the region's urban hub in a nearly year-old epidemic. (Photo by Pamela TULIZO / AFP)PAMELA TULIZO/AFP/Getty Images
A woman washes her hands on the streets of Goma © AFP

“There is an urgent need to deploy a second vaccine, which has been developed by Johnson & Johnson, complementary to the Merck vaccine and as a primary prevention to protect all who may be at risk,” she added.

The DRC has not yet approved the J&J vaccine for use in the country but WHO is working with the government and health officials to employ it too.

“Facing this exceptionally complex epidemic, we must use all of the tools and approaches at our disposal, including the co-ordinated use of both the Merck and J&J vaccines,” said Prof Piot. “WHO has sounded the global alarm. Now it is up to the world to act.”

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