In Summary
  • The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it "welcomed" the decision.

  • More than 1,600 people have died from Ebola since August 1, when the haemorrhagic virus erupted in DR Congo's North Kivu and spread to neighbouring Ituri.

The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a "public health emergency of international concern," a rare designation only used for the gravest epidemics.

"It is time for the world to take notice," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, as he accepted the advice of his advisory board to invoke the emergency provision (PHEIC), only used by the UN health agency four times previously.

Those included the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic of 2009, the spread of poliovirus in 2014, the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the surge of the Zika virus in 2016.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it "welcomed" the decision.

"While it does not change the reality on the ground for victims or partners engaged in the response, we hope it will bring the international attention that this crisis deserves," the IFRC said in a statement.

The WHO's international health regulations, drafted in 2005, say that the international emergency label should apply to a situation that is "serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State's national border; and may require immediate international action".

More than 1,600 people have died from Ebola since August 1, when the haemorrhagic virus erupted in DR Congo's North Kivu and spread to neighbouring Ituri.

This announcement comes just days after the epidemic for the first time spread to Goma, a major urban town and home to more than one million people.

 The United Nations health agency, however, stressed that no country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel or trade, adding that the risk of the disease spreading outside the region was not high.

“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.

Sitting on Wednesday, the emergency committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.

“It is important that the world follows these recommendations. It is also crucial that states do not use the PHEIC 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 Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the Emergency Committee.

Dr Ghebreyesus this week said the case in Goma was a potential game-changer, since it meant Ebola might now spread among the urban population and into neighbouring Rwanda.

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