World Health Organization says Ebola not global emergency, despite spread to Uganda

Grant Boone
June 15, 2019

The family had visited DRC to take care of a sick relative, who later died of Ebola, and then later crossed into Uganda with the lethal virus.

The woman was the grandmother of a five-year-old boy who died on Tuesday evening after crossing into Uganda with his family from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On June 13, the World Health Organization confirmed that experts will meet on Friday, June 14, to determine whether the Ebola outbreak should be declared 'a public health emergency of global concern.' This will be the third time the emergency committee has convened to discuss the potential.

There have been four declarations of public health emergencies since 2005, when WHO's regulations came in: swine flu in 2009, polio in 2014 when there was a resurgence after near eradication, Ebola in west Africa in 2014 and Zika virus in Brazil in 2016.

Since then, more than 2,100 cases and 1,400 deaths been reported, making this the second largest Ebola outbreak on record.

After long discussions, a WHO committee ruled that although the outbreak was an emergency for DRC, it did not fit the criteria to be declared a public health emergency of global concern.

In co-ordination with other global donors, the funding is contributing towards measures that include mainly the strengthening of disease surveillance, training of rapid response teams and local capacity building. The declaration typically triggers more funding, resources and political attention. The WHO committee "extensively debated" the question, Aavitsland said.

Dr Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the emergency committee, said they were extremely anxious about the ongoing outbreak and its spread and especially concerned that the world had not yet come up with the money needed to fight it. Uganda has done an fantastic job preparing for this spread, Farrar says, and has probably caught the case early enough to nip the outbreak in the bud. Community mistrust has been high and attacks by rebel groups have undermined aid efforts.

Since late February, community anger has been directed at the response teams; at least five workers have been killed.

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While the World Health Organization says such cases are of "grave concern" is says there is no evidence of the virus spreading in Uganda.

Friday's announcement quickly drew criticism from some experts.

"The fundamental dynamics of the outbreak haven't changed", said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Kinshasa in the DRC. "The epidemic is in a frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon", he said in a statement.

Dr. Preben Aavitsland, acting chair of the WHO's Emergency Committee, also told reporters that the group was "deeply disappointed that countries didn't receive more funding for the outbreak", asking global countries help pay for the disease control.

His 23-year-old Ugandan father has displayed symptoms but tested negative, Ugandan authorities said. They did not give more details. About 50 contacts of the family are being traced in Uganda.

A health ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the two victims had "attended the burial of an Ebola patient in Congo, but returned to Uganda".

The United Nations health agency said on Thursday that two people had died in Uganda after arriving with the disease from the DRC.

"Given that we are still seeing daily numbers of cases in the double digits and we do not have adequate surveillance, this indicates the outbreak is a persistent regional risk", she said.

As the far deadlier 2014-16 Ebola outbreak raged in West Africa, WHO was heavily criticized for not declaring a global emergency until almost 1,000 people had died and the virus had spread to at least three countries.

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