Congolese cross-border trader's Ebola death fuels Uganda outbreak fears

Grant Boone
July 20, 2019

The World Health Organisation (WHO) will work with authorities in Uganda to vaccinate about 590 fishmongers at the Mpondwe market, following the discovery that one of them vomited at the Ugandan market on July 11 before dying in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). "It is also crucial that states do not use the [Public Health Emergency of International Concern] as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region", said Robert Steffen, chairman of WHO's emergency committee.

Speaking at an Ebola response meeting, North Kivu province's Governor Carly Nzanzu said the City's first Ebola patient died while being driven from Goma to a clinic in Butembo on Monday to receive treatment.

Despite a highly effective vaccine and a swift worldwide response after it was declared 11 months ago, the outbreak has proved tenacious, becoming Congo's worst ever.

Rwanda's health minister, Diane Gashumba, said her country is taking precautionary measures after the pastor who contracted Ebola crossed Goma's bustling border into Rwanda. Before the 2019 outbreak of Ebola, the epidemic that killed over 11,000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016 has been termed the worst. The risk of the virus spreading beyond the surrounding countries is low.

Alexandra Phelan, a global health expert at Georgetown University Law Centre, said Wednesday's declaration was long overdue.

There have been about 200 attacks on health workers since January alone, and seven have been killed.

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Such restrictions "would actually restrict the flow of goods and health care workers into affected countries so they are counterproductive", she said. For such a declaration, an outbreak must constitute a risk to other countries and require a coordinated response. Dozens of rebel groups are active in Congo's northeast, killing hundreds of people in recent years.

Normally, a PHEIC is a formal declaration by the WHO of an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the worldwide spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated global response, formulated when a situation arises that is serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected.

Ebola cases hit 1,000, five days after the virus is detected in Bunia, a city with close to 1 million people.

Dr. Sinan Khaddaj, Secretary-General of the Women and Health Alliance (Waha), welcomes the decision of WHO.

Health workers wearing yellow high-visibility jackets took the temperature of people crossing the border, in both directions. It is invoked in response to only the most dire threats and has been issued just four times before.

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