WHO declares Ebola in west Africa a health emergency

African states are urged to screen those leaving at international airports

The WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan, said: “Countries affected to date simply don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak on this scale on their own.” Photograph: EPA/Salvatore Di Nolfi

The WHO’s director general, Margaret Chan, said: “Countries affected to date simply don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak on this scale on their own.” Photograph: EPA/Salvatore Di Nolfi

Fri, Aug 8, 2014, 22:19

The World Health Organisation declared the west African Ebola outbreak an international public health emergency yesterday, demanding an “extraordinary” response.

The organisation stopped short of saying there should be general international travel or trade bans but acknowledged that the outbreak, which has claimed 1,000 lives, was far from being contained.

The WHO urged all states where the disease is spreading to declare a state of emergency, to screen all people leaving at international airports, seaports and land crossings, and to prevent travel by anyone suspected of having the Ebola virus. The move is aimed at containing the disease. But the WHO did not recommend a ban on travel to or from places with outbreaks because of the low risk of infection.

‘Most severe outbreak’

Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director general, said: “This is the largest, most severe, most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of the disease . . .

“Countries affected to date simply don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak on this scale on their own.”

Dr Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s head of health security, said: “We don’t believe a general ban on that kind of travel makes any kind of sense at all.”

The declaration was apparently intended to display a more aggressive stance by the organisation. In the past, it has often bent to pressure from member states demanding that there be no consequences even as epidemics have raged inside their borders and sometimes slipped over them.

But health specialists remain critical of the international response. “Declaring Ebola an international public health emergency shows how seriously WHO is taking the current outbreak, but statements won’t save lives,” said Bart Janssens, the director of operations at Doctors Without Borders, which says it has hundreds of specialists in the field in west Africa.

Massive deployment

“Countries possessing necessary capacities must immediately dispatch available infectious disease experts and disaster relief assets to the region,” he said in a statement. “It is clear the epidemic will not be contained without a massive deployment on the ground from these states.”

According to figures released by the WHO this week, the virus has claimed 932 lives since March. Most cases are in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but nine have been reported in Nigeria, where one person died after travelling there from Liberia. The total number of confirmed, probable and suspected cases, including the fatalities, was 1,711.

The WHO’s declaration of a public health emergency is only the third such declaration since regulations permitting such alarms were adopted in 2007. The previous instances were to counter swine flu in 2009 and polio last May. – (New York Times service)