WHO declares Ebola outbreak international health emergency

Global community urged to do more to contain outbreak, which has killed 1,600 to date

The World Health Organisation has declared the Ebola outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo a public health emergency of international concern, eleven months after it first began.

More than 1,600 people have died from the virus, making it the second biggest Ebola outbreak in recorded history. Cases have now reached Goma, a busy city on the Rwandan border, and neighbouring Uganda.

This is only the fifth time the WHO has made this declaration: the others were for swine flu in 2009, a 2014 polio outbreak, the west Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014 and the Zika virus epidemic in 2016.

Making the announcement, chairman of the WHO's emergency committee Robert Steffen said it was dealing with a "tremendously complex situation".


While it was still a regional emergency and in no way a global threat, the failure to contain it so far meant the chances of Ebola spreading further were high, he said. “There must be more engagement by the global community to end this outbreak,” he added.

The WHO is not recommending any restrictions on travel or trade being implemented on the DRC’s borders, as such measures could hamper the fight against the virus, rather than helping it, by damaging the economy of the affected regions, it says.

Attempts to contain Ebola have been hampered by an ongoing conflict in eastern DRC – where dozens of armed groups are active.

Congolese communities are also suspicious of the sudden influx of money to what is a long-neglected, traditionally opposition-supporting part of the country, with many rumours circulating that Ebola is fake, or that the government or international organisations are deliberately infecting or even killing people. Other misbeliefs include that aid workers are harvesting the organs of victims.

“The situation is bad,” Aime, a health promoter in Beni, one of the areas affected by the outbreak, told The Irish Times through the messaging service WhatsApp. He said Ebola response workers were regularly attacked and beaten by members of the local community.

Many Congolese people involved in the response are also working on short term or daily contracts. Aime was let go from his job as a WHO hygienist in June after funding ran out.

On Wednesday, Uganda’s Ministry of Health said it was working with the WHO to identify people who had come in contact with a woman who recently travelled to the country to trade in fish while she was contagious with Ebola, before returning to the DRC, where she died.

The woman evaded formal border controls, where travellers have their temperatures checked, highlighting the porous nature of the border. The Ugandan government advised citizens to avoid handshaking, hugging and mass gatherings.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa