In mid-June, the World Health Organization convened a group of experts to determine whether the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo should be declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Despite contention between the group, at least based on a previous release from WHO, the organization ultimately decided it wouldn’t make such a declaration. One month later, WHO has reversed the decision.
June’s PHEIC meeting
The DR Congo has been experiencing an ongoing Ebola outbreak that has, as of summer 2019, resulted in more than 1,600 deaths. In June, the virus had made its way into Uganda, prompting World Health Organization to convene an emergency committee to determine whether a formal PHEIC should be declared.
WHO explained at the time that there was heavy debate over whether the formal designation should be declared, but ultimately the decision was made to skip it, with officials explaining that the PHEIC announcement wouldn’t benefit the situation as it existed at the time.
However, the emergency committee did produce a large list of ‘strong’ recommendations, including urging the international community to provide more funds for combating the outbreak. These funds are critical for ensuring the virus isn’t spread to neighboring countries, that vaccinations are made available, and that officials working to eliminate the outbreak can be supported, among other things.
In a statement published on Wednesday, July 17, WHO announced that a Public Health Emergency of International Concern has been declared in the DR Congo Ebola outbreak. The declaration was made by the organization’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said:
It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system. Extraordinary work has been done for almost a year under the most difficult circumstances. We all owe it to these responders — coming from not just WHO but also government, partners and communities — to shoulder more of the burden.
The decision to issue a PHEIC declaration was made by an emergency committee that met in recent days. The outbreak’s recent spread into the major city of Goma, where nearly two million people live, was a driving factor in the decision. If Ebola spreads to Goma, it will pave the way for the virus to pass into the rest of DR Congo and Rwanda, and potentially other countries around the world.
What this means
The PHEIC declaration should spur countries into paying more attention and lending additional support, including funds, to efforts in combating the outbreak. WHO officials warn that the declaration should not be used by countries to impose travel or trade restrictions, however, explaining that this would have a negative impact on how people respond to ongoing efforts to contain the virus, as well as on the lives and livelihoods of the people living in DR Congo.
Dr. Tedros explained:
This is about mothers, fathers and children – too often entire families are stricken. At the heart of this are communities and individual tragedies. The PHEIC should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help.
The UN has activated the Humanitarian System-wide Scale-Up in response to the Ebola outbreak, which had been designated a Level 3 emergency by WHO for nearly a year prior to the PHEIC declaration. This formal global emergency declaration is the highest level it can issue in regards to the outbreak, and such a designation has only been made four times in the past.