Congo's Ebola Outbreak Declared Global Health Emergency

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola virus epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a global health emergency. “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our efforts. We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. The epidemic was officially given the designation of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Tedros said that “extraordinary work” had been done in the last year to address the outbreak amid “the most difficult circumstances.” The virus has infected more than 2,500 people since the outbreak was first declared on August 1, 2018. Nearly 1,700 of those infected have died, according to The Atlantic. The committee recommended the international community should protect those affected by the outbreak by keeping transport routes and borders open. Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the Emergency Committee, said it was crucial that countries do not use the latest designation as “an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region.”

Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, told USA Today in a statement that there was a “very real risk” the outbreak could spread and that the international community should make sure that does not happen. However, Steffen told The New York Times that the Ebola outbreak was in no way a global threat.

The disease has always been a serious health concern. Recent situations have proven especially lethal with the 2015 outbreak infecting 28,000 people in West Africa and killing 11,000.

“This is about mothers, fathers, and children — too often entire families are stricken. At the heart of this are communities and individual tragedies,” Ghebreyesus said. “The PHEIC should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help.”

Recent developments made fighting the epidemic more urgent and pushed the WHO to make its declaration. The deadly disease, which has been ongoing for nearly a year, reached Goma, a city on the border with Rwanda that has a population of nearly two million people. Congo’s health ministry said that the disease reached Goma through a priest who was infected in the town of Butembo, Reuters reported. At least 60 people were identified as having contact with the priest. The virus has also reemerged in locations where it had been contained, The New York Times reported.

The DRC has experienced an Ebola virus outbreak 10 times since the disease was first discovered by Jean-Jacques Muyembe, then the DRC’s only virologist, in 1976. Health officials managed to contain the 2017 outbreak in 42 days, while the ninth outbreak took three months to contain in 2018.

Health workers trying to contain the disease have had a difficult time doing so. In order to control the spread of Ebola, workers must find infected people, track down anyone who has had contact with those infected, and use vaccines, according to The Atlantic. Militia violence has made the work more difficult by blocking health workers from reaching remote areas. Workers also need to convince people to skip traditional burial practices that put them at risk of contact with virus-infected bodily fluids. The disease, which can spread through bodily fluids, causes vomiting, diarrhea, and hemorrhagic fever. Violence against health workers has been reported. Earlier in July, two Congolese workers near Mukulia in the North Kivu province were killed in their homes, Reuters reported. The deaths are just the latest in a series of attacks this year that have left health workers dead or injured.

“Every attack gives Ebola an opportunity to spread,” Ghebreyesus told Reuters. “Ebola gets a free ride.” On July 18, Congolese authorities announced that soldiers and police will be enforcing hand-washing and fever checks, USA Today reported. Dr. Aruna Abedi, the coordinator of the health ministry’s outbreak response, said soldiers and police are prepared to “force” people to take measures to contain the deadly disease.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.