GENEVA — The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's conflict-ridden North Kivu and Ituri provinces a public health emergency of international concern.
The declaration by an emergency committee at WHO headquarters in Geneva elevated the disease and the efforts needed to combat it to a significantly higher level of concern. Nevertheless, committee chairman Robert Steffen cautioned against overreacting to the meaning of the decision.
"This is still a regional emergency and by no way a global threat,” he said. “And, why this change of opinion … there is concern about the spread of Ebola from Goma, a gateway, even though so far no cases were newly infected in the city."
On Sunday, the first case of Ebola was discovered in Goma, a city of 2 million. The pastor infected with the virus later died.
Steffen said the recurrence of intense transmission in Beni, an earlier epicenter of the disease, and the recent killings of two Ebola health workers were among other factors that fed into the committee's decision.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that the risk that the disease could spread in the DRC was very high but said that the risk of spread outside the region remained low.
No curbs on travel, trade advised
Although the committee declared Ebola to be a global health emergency, Tedros said WHO did not recommend any restrictions on travel or trade.
Such restrictions “can actually hamper the fight,” he said. “Closing borders could have disastrous consequences for the lives and livelihoods of the people who cross the border every day for trade, education or to visit relatives."
WHO said that since the Ebola epidemic was declared last Aug. 1, there have been more than 2,500 cases, including nearly 1,670 deaths. This is the 10th outbreak of the disease over the last four decades in the DRC. It is the second-largest outbreak after the 2014 historic epidemic in West Africa that killed more than 11,300 people.
WHO said insecurity due to conflict in North Kivu and Ituri provinces and tepid international financial support were the main impediments to stopping the Ebola virus.