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WHO Declares Ebola Outbreak In Congo An International Health Emergency

The World Health Organization says more than 1,650 people have died from the current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Al-hadji Kudra Maliro
The World Health Organization says more than 1,650 people have died from the current outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET

The World Health Organization's director-general has declared the Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo an international health emergency.

The outbreak in the DRC has killed more than 1,650 people, and about 12 new cases are reported daily, according to the WHO.

At a news conference Wednesday, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described "a concerning geographic expansion," but WHO said the outbreak does not pose a global threat. The agency recommended that no borders be closed because of the declaration and that trade and travel to Congo not be restricted. Such restrictions, it said, would cause a terrible economic impact on the region and hamper the fight to stop the outbreak.

The WHO chief said the DRC needs funding from the international community, otherwise "we will be paying for this outbreak for a long time to come."

The director-general convened an emergency panel of experts Wednesday to discuss the possibility of an emergency declaration not long after the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Goma, a Congolese city on the border with Rwanda. Goma is home to about a million people and is a transit hub, raising concerns about the potential to promote the spread of the virus.

NPR's Nurith Aizenman reported that the person was a pastor in Goma. He appeared to have contracted the virus in the city of Butembo and then traveled by bus to Goma while he was sick.

Robert Steffen, chair of the WHO's International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, said Wednesday that there had been no new cases in Goma.

Wednesday's conference marked the fourth time since the DRC outbreak was declared on Aug. 1, 2018, that the WHO's International Health Regulations Emergency Committee has met to consider designating the Ebola epidemic a "public health emergency of international concern." Such a designation, as Aizenman reported, is "a technically symbolic gesture that can galvanize international funding."

The group of experts met last month after the first confirmed Ebola cases were reported in neighboring Uganda but declined to declare an emergency. They said at the time that "the cluster of cases in Uganda is not unexpected" and determined that it did not meet the necessary criteria.

The three criteria for such a declaration are that it is an "extraordinary event," that it "constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease" and that it "potentially require a coordinated international response." Last time the committee met, members said that the outbreak met the first two criteria, but at that time would not have been aided by a coordinated international response.

WHO workers and their partners are also conducting health screenings on roadways, particularly on the DRC's borders, to try to prevent the spread of the virus. Its border with Uganda is more than 540 miles long.

One of the biggest challenges with this outbreak is that even as health workers fight to contain the virus, they are facing attacks. The WHO said this week that since January, 198 attacks have killed seven people and left an additional 58 health care workers and patients injured.

The WHO chief said Wednesday that there has been violence in the region for years. "It's not new; it's a war zone," he said, adding that the Congolese army and U.N. troops were working in coordination to prevent more attacks.

"Together with the government, we can and will end this outbreak. We have better public health tools than ever to respond to Ebola, including an effective vaccine," the WHO director-general said in a statement. "But we need to see an end to the attacks and other disruptions to the response."

Rwanda's health minister, Diane Gashumba, said her country is taking precautionary measures after the pastor contracted Ebola and was diagnosed in Goma, eastern Congo's main city, near the bustling border with Rwanda. However, she said the country's border crossing with Goma will remain open, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 17, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story stated that a pastor who had contracted Ebola crossed into Rwanda. In fact, he was near the border but did not cross.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.
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