The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo remains a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organisation has said.
The UN health agency said this on Wednesday after a deliberation by the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on Ebola.
The emergency committee was first set up by the WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, in July to determine if the disease constituted a global health threat to the world.
Reconfirming the status of the disease, Mr Ghebreyesus on his Twitter handle @DrTedros, said he accepted the emergency committee’s advice that the Ebola outbreak in DRC “continues to be a public health emergency of international concern.”
“I have accepted that advice,” he said.
Mr Ghebreyesus said WHO’s assessment is that the risk of spread is high nationally and regionally, and low, globally.
The decision could be apt because last year before the disease was declared an emergency, a case had been detected in Uganda, a neighbouring country, in a man who had travelled from DRC.
The committee had a unanimous view that the disease still constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) under the IHR (2005).
State of emergency
Mr Ghebreyesus last July declared the Ebola outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern”. This gave the UN agency greater powers to restrict travel and boost funding.
This helped to speed up efforts in getting a vaccine which has helped curb the spread of disease in DRC.
Mr Ghebreyesus on Tuesday said the Ebola outbreak in DRC appears to be far from over.
This was because new confirmed cases and deaths from the disease are still being reported in the conflict-ridden country.
The country has been battling the outbreak of the disease since August, but the new coronavirus outbreak in China has pushed news on the disease off the headlines.
Mr Ghebreyesus said before the epidemic to be declared over, there have to be no new cases reported for 42 days – double the incubation period.
As of February 10, there were a total of suspected 3431 cases, of which 3308 were confirmed and 123 were probable and 2253 people have died from the disease.
Between February 3 and 9, three new confirmed cases were reported in Beni Health Zone, North Kivu.
The UN health agency said the three cases were already registered as contacts and two were under surveillance at the time of detection.
“More than 2000 contacts are being followed. There has been an increase in the number of security incidents in recent months.
“Nonetheless, the signs are extremely positive, and I hope that by the time the emergency committee reconvenes, we will be able to declare an end to the Ebola outbreak in DRC, but must act now to prevent the next one,” he said.
Call to action
While new confirmed cases have been slowing down, the emergency committee said it would be too soon to lift the emergency status of the disease.
A vaccine was approved by the WHO last year to stem the tide of the outbreak.
But reports from the health agency on Monday show that while progress is being made in combating the disease, the North Kivu and Ituri provinces in the eastern DRC cannot yet be cleared.
Mr Ghebreyesus is expected to travel to DRC on Thursday for discussions with the President, Felix Tshisekedi and other senior ministers about how to strengthen DRC’s health system.
“We can’t forget that while Ebola has killed thousands of people, measles has also killed thousands in DRC, in less time.
“Only half of health facilities have access to water. Strengthening a health system may not be as sexy as responding to an outbreak, but it’s equally important,” he said.
He added that the current outbreak of COVID19 highlights why it is so critical for countries like DRC to strengthen health facilities.
“Our greatest fear remains the damage this coronavirus could do in a country like DRC. Even as the flames of one outbreak begin to die down, we are fighting another fire-front.”
The Ebola expert group will likely to meet again within three months for another review on the status of the disease, the chairman of the committee, Robert Steffen, said.
“Withdrawing the PHEIC now might have adverse consequences for the response efforts through diminishing focus.”
He said although the primary concern of the committee is Ebola, there are serious ongoing outbreaks of other diseases, including measles and cholera, in DRC.
“The country continues to need support to combat infectious diseases as well as to strengthen its health system.”