- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in Congo to be a global emergency Wednesday, elevating the nearly yearlong crisis and issuing a global cry for more help despite the reservations of local officials.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said global partners need to “shoulder more of the burden” in Congo, where responders have been working since August to reel in a stubborn Ebola outbreak that has killed over 1,675.

“The government of [the Democratic Republic of Congo] is doing everything it can. They need the support of the international community,” Dr. Tedros said.

Ebola is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads from human to human through bodily fluids of people who exhibit symptoms.

The outbreak in northeast Congo, which began in August, has resulted in more than 2,500 cases, making it the second-worst on record after the massive West African outbreak from 2013 to 2016.

The WHO’s panel convened three previous times to take stock of the situation, but each time it decided the situation did not constitute a public emergency of international concern.

The tipping point this time appeared to be the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost 2 million people on the border with Rwanda. In June, cases flared up in another neighboring country, Uganda.

Dr. Robert Steffen, who chaired the emergency committee, also highlighted the geographic range of transmission in Congo and the fact that Ebola has spread for nearly a year.

Declaring an official emergency is a serious step designed to rally international attention and help. An emergency has been declared only four other times, including in response to the West African outbreak.

Mark Green, administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the U.S. has contributed nearly $100 million to the fight and will keep up its efforts. He said other nations need do more.

“As the single largest donor to this response, the United States encourages other donors to help bring this outbreak to an end as soon as possible,” Mr. Green said, adding he’d like to see more vaccination in at-risk areas.

Officials said the declaration should not be interpreted as a failing grade for current responders and argued that there is no reason for nations to set up travel restrictions or seal their borders. Local officials often are reluctant to support such emergency declarations for fear of the impact on trade and travel.

“The risk of spread in DRC and the region remains very high, and the risk of spread outside the region remains low,” Dr. Tedros said.

When bans are in place, people tend to cross borders anyway, he said, yet do it secretively and hinder the Ebola response.

Some analysts applauded Dr. Tedros for his declaration, saying it was about time.

“He has sounded a global alert, giving the clearest possible signal that WHO needs more financial and human resources,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “Without a surge response, it will be impossible to bring the DRC Ebola epidemic under control. It could rage on for months or years. In fact, it is long past time that WHO declared an emergency.”

Though responders have an experimental vaccine and new trial drugs to combat Ebola, they are dealing with unique challenges in Congo, including a migratory population, attacks from rebel groups and skepticism in many local affected communities of outsiders.

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