The second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola virus in history has become an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, a declaration that marks a new level of concern about the infection.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the health group was concerned that the virus could eventually spread outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“The risk of Ebola spread in DRC and the region is very high,” the director-general said at a press conference. The risk of the virus spreading beyond the surrounding countries is low.
The outbreak, which began in August 2018, has infected more than 2,300 people and killed more than 1,500, according to a July 9 WHO report. In early June, a few cases were confirmed in neighboring Uganda, and now the disease has reached Goma, a large city on the border with Rwanda, sparking fear that one of the deadliest diseases on Earth could spread across the region.
WHO officials said Tuesday that there were currently no confirmed cases in Uganda, despite concerns about a woman who last week crossed the country’s border back into Congo and later died.
It’s the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, after the 2013-to-2016 outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people, mostly in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ghebreyesus said there have been more than 75 million screenings for the disease at DRC border crossings, and that travel or trade restrictions wouldn’t be useful. When countries enact such restrictions, it’s often devastating to local economies, as was the case during the 2013-to-2016 Ebola outbreak.
“Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of DRC, not to impose punitive and counterproductive restrictions that will only serve to isolate them,” he said.
Merck & Co.’s experimental Ebola vaccine V920 has been widely used in the Democratic Republic of Congo since the August outbreak began. Merck has donated 195,000 doses to the WHO for response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda since last year, said Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele in an email. The company has another 245,000 doses available for shipment.
Though the company has increased its vaccine supply projection for 2020 to about 900,000 doses, there’s still a need for more vaccines, said Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies Program.
In addition to working with manufacturers to increase supply, Ryan said WHO supports the introduction of a second vaccine, with Johnson & Johnson’s experimental treatment being the most likely candidate. While there are concerns that a second vaccine might confuse the local population, Ryan said health officials are “working through those issues about where and when the vaccine could be used.”
The public health emergency declaration is reserved for extraordinary circumstances, according to the WHO. It can help mobilize an international response to an outbreak, provide more resources and focus government attention on the issue. The WHO has considered and rejected declaring the current outbreak an international emergency several times, saying it would continue to monitor the situation.