MANILA — The emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization to assess the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo advised the director-general on Wednesday that the outbreak does not yet necessitate the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern.
The committee, an independent body composed of international experts, acknowledged there was a challenging security situation in North Kivu, the center of the current outbreak. But while the WHO announced in late September that the risk of the Ebola virus spreading from Congo is “very high,” the committee said “not a single case has been exported” to date.
The international community is already actively responding to the outbreak, so there’s “no added value” in declaring a public health emergency of international concern, said committee chair Robert Steffen, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology and Prevention of Infectious Diseases at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
As the Ebola outbreak in DRC threatens to spiral out of control, questions arise on just how much the international community has learned since the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Steffen said the committee was worried that a declaration of the outbreak as a global concern would have implications on travel and trade, and might hinder response efforts on the ground.
When asked, Steffen said political implications were “considered” but not a factor in the decision.
WHO was heavily criticized for its delayed declaration of an international public health emergency during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Leaked documents seen by AP later revealed some senior officials within the organization were debating the very same issue, and advised then-WHO Director-General Margaret Chan to use the declaration as a “last resort.” Some of the affected governments at the time were already trying to downplay the situation for fear of driving away potential investments.
The committee expressed optimism that the most recent outbreak will be contained within a “reasonable” timeframe. But given the current situation — where different areas in DRC have been affected and response teams are still playing catch-up in contact tracing — WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it’s difficult at this time to provide a timeline for when the outbreak will be controlled. But he added, they’re “giving [their] best” to curb the outbreak within the year.
As of Oct. 16, there are total of 216 cases in DRC, including 139 deaths from Ebola, according to the latest update by the country’s ministry of health.