WHO considers declaring Ebola an 'international emergency' as 'frightening' outbreak spreads to Uganda

Paul Nuki
Uganda is more developed and stable than DRC and has been preparing for the eventuality of Ebola for some time, carefully monitoring the thousands who cross the border each day - International Rescue Committee

Experts will meet on Friday to determine whether to declare the Ebola epidemic in central Africa "a public health emergency of international concern," said the World Health Organization.

The move follows the spread of the virus from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda where a five-year-old boy died and his grandmother are confirmed to have the deadly hemorrhagic disease.

At the time of writing, 27 others who had been in contact with the family were under close observation. 

The Ebola outbreak has been raging in DRC since August where more than 2,000 cases have been recorded, two-thirds of them fatal.

WHO's emergency committee has met twice to consider declaring the outbreak an international emergency but on both occasions - the latest in April - decided not to, in part because the virus remained contained in DRC.

For the committee to make the emergency call, it must determine that the epidemic "carries implications for public health beyond the affected State's national border and may require immediate international action," said the WHO.

An Ebola screening checkpoint at the Bunagana border crossing with Congo, where people are required to wash their hands and feet with a chlorine solution and have their temperature taken Credit: Ben Wise/International Rescue Committee 

Following the death of the five-year-old in a Ugandan isolation unit late on Tuesday night, the country announced two more cases of Ebola on Wednesday - a grandmother and a three-year-old boy. The grandmother has since died.

"This epidemic is in a truly frightening phase and shows no sign of stopping," said Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust, a global health charity.

"We can expect and should plan for more cases in DRC and neighbouring countries.

"There are now more deaths than any other Ebola outbreak in history, bar the West Africa epidemic of 2013-16, and there can be no doubt that the situation could escalate towards those terrible levels."

An Ebola-prevention information sign at the Ndaiga Health Centre II, near the shores of Lake Albert and the border with Congo Credit: Ben Wise /International Rescue Committee 

The spread of Ebola to Uganda is significant but does not signal the epidemic is swinging out of control.

Uganda and other neighbouring countries are much more developed and stable than DRC and have been preparing for this eventuality for some time, carefully monitoring the thousands who cross the borders each day.

Uganda has had multiple outbreaks of Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers in the past, although none in the current epidemic.

Experts say it is well-placed to contain the outbreak and expect it to do so.

Nevertheless the spread of the disease has alarmed those responding to what is already the second worst recorded outbreak of Ebola.

Brechtje van Lith, Save the Children’s country director in Uganda, called for more action and funds to stop the disease spreading further.

“Tragically, the first confirmed case in Uganda is that of a very young and vulnerable child. Now is the critical time to step up efforts to make sure that this one case does not become many. The Ebola outbreak is already devastating lives and communities across eastern Congo – action and funds are needed right now to stop it spreading further across the region.”

The International Rescue Committee said the spread of the disease across an international border was a “clear signal that the international community must reset and redouble its efforts”.

For the first time an experimental but effective Ebola vaccine is being widely used, with more than 130,000 doses distributed. Uganda has vaccinated nearly 4,700 health workers.

The case fatality rate – or death rate – in the current outbreak is high at around 66 per cent.

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