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WHO Refuses to Declare Second-Deadliest Ebola Outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency

Despite the rising death toll in the Democratic Republic of Congo, last week the World Health Organization (WHO) declined for the third time to declare the current Ebola outbreak as a global public-health emergency. The WHO based their decision on the finding that the risk of spread of Ebola outside the Congo was low and that any public health emergency declaration would have a negative economic impact by forcing the Congo to suspend trade and flights and close their borders.

The current outbreak in the Congo is the world’s second-deadliest Ebola epidemic with the first being the 2014 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Since the current Ebola outbreak was declared in August 2018, at least 2,108 people have contracted the disease. Of those 2,108 people, 1,411 have died. Although three cases of Ebola have been identified in Uganda, officials do not expect the Ugandan outbreak to worsen because of Uganda’s strong central government and organized health care system. Additionally, the spread to Uganda is considered unlikely because Uganda has prepared extensively for an Ebola outbreak by taking preventative measures including vaccinating front-line health workers and building training facilities.

For now, the greatest area of concern is the East Congo. Due to increased violence in the area, distrust of health officials, and a shortage of Ebola vaccines, standard strategies like case identification, vaccination, and treatment of Ebola are difficult to implement. In the East Congo, about half of those individuals who have died from Ebola had no contact with doctors. Therefore, health officials are often unable to provide vaccinations and contain the further spread of the disease because the infected patients die before reaching a clinic.

With the Ebola outbreak currently contained to the Congo, the WHO declined to deem the outbreak dire enough to constitute a global public health emergency. While the WHO found the current outbreak not significant enough for such declaration, other global health experts argue that such declaration must be issued to raise international support, enhance diplomatic, public health, security, and logistic efforts, and to increase financial resources. Despite the availability of an effective vaccine and containment protocol, the current Ebola outbreak in the Congo remains largely uncontrolled and poses security risks to other countries.