WHO Declines to Call Ebola Outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency

The now months-long Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which spread to Uganda this week) is an emergency for the DRC and its neighbors, but according to the WHO this week, it doesn’t constitute a global health emergency.

The core of the decision was that the additional powers that come with an emergency declaration aren’t needed and, if used, may cause more harm than good.  One of those powers would allow the WHO to disclose information about a disease event to other countries without the consent of the outbreak country.  Emergency powers also give the WHO director-general authority to issue temporary recommendations regarding trade and travel.  However, the WHO’s recommendations on travel and trade have sometimes been ignored during other declarations.

On the other hand, declaring an emergency can be quite helpful in raising cash to fund public health and treatment interventions, and not declaring an emergency may miss opportunities to get additional resources to the outbreak areas.

More than 2,100 cases and 1,400 deaths have been reported in the DRC, making this the second largest Ebola outbreak on record.  It’s still 10% the size of the 2014-2016 West African outbreak, but has been difficult to control because of political and civil unrest in the DRC -despite the fact that there is now a vaccine that wasn’t available until the end of the 2016 outbreak.

Merck is making an additional 450,000 doses of the experimental Ebola vaccine for the DRC- but it takes a year from start to finish to make the vaccine. More than 130,000 DRC people have been vaccinated so far.