GENEVA - The head of the World Health Organization warns the spread of Ebola to a large city in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo could have dire consequences. The WHO chief spoke Monday at a high-level meeting that examined current efforts to contain the growing Ebola epidemic in Congo.
The Ebola outbreak in Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu and Ituri provinces is the second largest after the historic 2014 epidemic that killed 11,300 people in West Africa.
As the first anniversary of the DRC epidemic draws near, the WHO reports nearly 2,500 people have been infected with the virus and 1,665 people have died.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the effort to stop the spread of the disease has received another blow with the news that the first case of Ebola had been detected in the eastern Congolese city of Goma.
He says WHO was informed Sunday that a pastor who had traveled from Butembo was infected with the deadly virus.
“The identification of the case in Goma could potentially be a game changer in this epidemic," he said. "Goma is a city of two million people, near the border with Rwanda, and is a gateway to the region and the world. We are confident in the measures we have put in place and hope that we will see no further transmission of Ebola in Goma.”
But Tedros agrees he cannot be sure of that. And, so, he says he will reconvene a WHO Emergency Committee as soon as possible to determine whether Ebola in the DRC poses a global health threat.
The co-chair of this high-level conference, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, considers a lack of funding and eastern Congo's dangerous security environment to be the two biggest threats to the anti-Ebola campaign.
Recently, two Ebola responders were murdered in their home in the Congolese city of Beni.
On the financial front, he notes less than half of the money needed to run the Ebola containment operation has been received, leaving a funding gap of $50 million.
Lowcock warns it will not be possible to get to zero cases unless there’s a big upturn in the response.
“If we do not get an increase in the funding available, treatment centers are going to close," he said. "There will be fewer teams to conduct training or to give life-saving vaccinations. There will be fewer mobile teams available to immediately investigate, isolate, treat and trace each new case no matter where the disease pops up.”
Participants at the meeting agree on the urgent need to stop the Ebola virus now.
They say Goma is a warning that will test the health community’s response, preparedness and ultimate ability to prevent further cases of Ebola in that big urban center.