Ebola causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting and hemorrhagic fever and can spread through contact with bodily fluids. A deadly outbreak in 2013-2016 killed more than 11,000 people across West Africa. “It is time for the world to take notice,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, as he confirmed he had accepted the advice of his advisory board to invoke the emergency provision (PHEIC). However, Mr Tedros added that there should be no restrictions on travel or trade, and no entry screening of passengers at ports or airports outside the immediate region.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies “welcomed” the WHO’s decision.
“While it does not change the reality on the ground for the victims or partners engaged in the response, we hope it will bring the international attention the crisis deserves,” the IFRC said in a statement.
The Ebola epidemic in DR Congo began nearly a year ago and has since infected more than 2,500 people and killed nearly 1,700. It is the second deadliest on record after the West African outbreak in 2013-2016 that infected 28,000 people and killed more than 11,000.
Ebola causes acute diarrhoea, vomiting and hemorrhagic fever and can spread through close contact with bodily fluids from an infected person. It is a severe, often fatal virus.
The epidemic has so far been contained to relatively remote areas, but this week saw a case reported in the eastern city of Goma, the first in a major urban hub, escalating the severity of the crisis.
Mr Tedros said earlier this week that the Goma case was a “potential game-changer” because the city, which borders Rwanda, is a “gateway” to Africa’s Great Lakes region and the wider world.
The Goma patient, who has died, was an evangelical preacher who had travelled to the city from Butembo, an Ebola hotspot. He had reportedly touched several Ebola patients and concealed his identity in order to avoid health screenings while en route to Goma.
The spread of the virus to Goma, a city of roughly 1 million people, has stoked fears the killer disease could spread more widely and potentially run amok.
“There are worrying signs of a possible extension of the epidemic. Despite significant improvement in many places, there is concern about potential spread from Goma,” the WHO insisted.
Goma has a port that links to Bukavu and South Kivu province and an airport with flights to Kinshasa, the Ugandan capital Entebbe and Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.
The virus jumped the border into Uganda last month, but was swiftly contained by health workers. No new cases have been reported since.
The WHO states that a public health emergency should be declared when the situation is “serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and may require immediate international action”.
However, a main concern in making that call is the fear that other states will close their borders in order to protect their populations, isolating the affected country.
But while health officials in DR Congo have focused on Ebola in the east, the country is also battling a nationwide measles epidemic.
At least 1,981 people have died from measles in DR Congo this year, surpassing the deaths from Ebola, according to the UN children’s agency Unicef. Children under five account for two-thirds of the deaths.
Roughly 115,000 suspected cases have been reported, almost double the number recorded for the whole of 2018.
“The combined threat of Ebola and measles for the thousands of families living in overcrowded and unsanitary displacement camps is unprecedented,” Edouard Beigbeder, a local Unicef spokesman, said.
“We have a small window to prevent a potentially massive loss of life,” he added.
Efforts to combat Ebola and measles have been hobbled by widespread militia violence and low public trust.