No need to sound the world’s loudest public health alarm bell about the lingering Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, decided today. The controversial decision not to declare what is known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) comes as the outbreak has sickened at least 1206 people, killing 63% of them.
A recent spike in cases had prompted WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to convene the 11-member panel. It considered, for a second time, whether WHO should take the rare step of declaring the outbreak a global emergency, which can impact disease surveillance plans, travel, and trade. WHO adopted the PHEIC concept in 2005, and has invoked it just four times: for pandemic flu in 2009, polio eradication in 2014, the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, and the Zika virus outbreak in 2016.
Some public health experts believe WHO needed to take the dramatic step in order to draw greater attention—and funding—to fighting the DRC Ebola outbreak, which is centered in two conflict-ridden provinces the country’s northeast. Cases began to surface in August 2018, and the outbreak is now second in size only to the massive Ebola epidemic that devastated three West African countries between 2014 and 2016.
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