WHO defines a public health emergency of international concern as “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.”
In announcing the decision by the committee, Dr. Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the emergency committee, said the outbreak is a health emergency in the DRC and the region. He emphasized that funding is needed to continue efforts to contain the outbreak.
The epicenter of the outbreak is North Kivu and Ituri provinces, among the most populous in the nation and bordering Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, according to WHO.
Health officials announced this week that the outbreak crossed the border from Congo to neighboring Uganda.
Other characteristics of the epidemic
The current Ebola epidemic is caused by the most deadly strain, Zaire Ebola virus, which is the same one that affected West Africa during the 2014-2016 outbreak. Six months into that outbreak, a total 1,711 probable cases of Ebola had been reported when a public health emergency of international concern was declared on August 8, 2014, for the West Africa Ebola epidemic.
Despite similarities between the two epidemics, there are important differences including the fact that long-term conflict smolders at the epicenter of the current outbreak, where at least 50 armed groups cause intermittent violence, according to WHO.
For this reason, the US State Department has not allowed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to deploy staff to the epicenter. The CDC has staff in-country, at a distance from the epicenter, and does not provide information regarding location in order to protect the privacy and safety of health care professionals. The agency announced this week that it activated its emergency operations center in Atlanta to provide additional support for the outbreak response.
Gostin said that “responders are facing intense violence along with deep community mistrust. They can’t get into the hot zone due to escalating violence.”
Add to that, more than a million refugees and internally displaced people are traveling through and out of North Kivu and Ituri, according to WHO.
As was feared and expected the outbreak was confirmed to have crossed the border this week.
Yet five sickened family members were repatriated from Uganda to Congo and no additional cases of Ebola identified in Uganda at this time, the Congo Ministry of Health stated on Thursday.
Still, hope comes in the form of research advancements. Experimental treatments and vaccines, which were not available during the West African outbreak, have been used in Congo — another striking difference from the 2014 West Africa outbreak, which had no vaccines and the only treatment options had not yet been used in humans.
To date, 585 patients have recovered from the illness, and more than 133,000 vaccines have been administered, which many believe has helped limit the spread of the outbreak.
The rVSV-ZEBOV experimental vaccine, manufactured by Merck, was approved by Congo’s health ministry ethics committee for use in country in May 2018; Farrar is calling for the deployment of an Ebola vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, which is still under development.
Seroux stated that “what is most important now if we want to gain control of this epidemic is to change the way we are dealing with it. We need to adapt our intervention to the needs and expectations of the population, to integrate Ebola activities in the local healthcare system, to engage effectively with the communities, and to further explore promising vaccinations to strengthen prevention.”