The ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now considered an international health emergency, the World Health Organization said.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Wednesday that the situation in the Central African country is undergoing "a concerning geographic expansion." However, he clarified that the outbreak still does not pose any threat globally.

Fight Against Ebola In Congo

Despite its declaration, WHO said it does not recommend any closure of borders or restrictions on trade and travel to the country. The international health agency believes such a move would negatively impact the economy in the region and could limit its ability to address the Ebola outbreak.

Ghebreyesus once again urged the international community to provide much-needed funding to fight the disease, warning that the world would be "paying for this outbreak for a long time to come" if it was not eliminated immediately.

WHO organized an emergency panel consisting of health experts this week to determine whether an emergency declaration is necessary following the first confirmed Ebola case in Goma. The city is located near the border between the DRC and neighboring Rwanda.

Goma has a population of about a million people, and the city itself serves as a major transit hub in the country. Health experts are concerned that the disease might spread to other countries via travelers passing through the city.

The confirmed case in Goma involved a pastor who may have contracted Ebola in the city of Butembo, according to news website NPR. The patient then traveled to Goma in a bus while he was ill.

WHO said no new cases of Ebola infection were detected in Goma.

Declaring A Global Health Emergency

Wednesday's emergency panel marks the fourth time WHO considered declaring the recent Ebola outbreak in Congo as an international health concern. NPR health correspondent Nurith Aizenman said such a designation is a "technically symbolic gesture" that could help spur global funding for emergency response.

In June, health experts met to discuss the first confirmed cases of Ebola in Uganda, but they declined to declare a global health emergency. The group said the infection cases in the neighboring country was "not unexpected" and that they did not meet the criteria necessary to make a declaration.

Before a disease outbreak can be declared an international health emergency, it must meet three criteria, according to WHO:

  • The emergency must be an "extraordinary event."
  • It should constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease.
  • It should potentially require a coordinated international response.

Health experts said the outbreak in Uganda met the first two necessary criteria but clarified that it would not have been aided by a coordinated response from the international community at that particular time.

WHO has also organized health screenings on roadways across Congo, especially on the country's borders, to prevent the spread of Ebola to other regions.

However, the situation is not made easy because of recent violent attacks on health workers trying to contain the outbreak. Since the start of 2019, as many as 198 attacks have been launched against health workers, according to WHO. These have resulted in seven people killed and 58 others injured.

Ghebreyesus pointed out that the region has been plagued by violence for years, calling the area " war zone." He said the United Nations is working with the Congolese army to prevent more attacks on health care workers and Ebola patients.

"Together with the government, we can and will end this outbreak. We have better public health tools than ever to respond to Ebola, including an effective vaccine," the WHO chief said.

"But we need to see an end to the attacks and other disruptions to the response."

Diane Gashumba, health minister in Rwanda, said the government is already taking steps to prevent the entry of Ebola into the country, following the confirmed case in Goma. She added that the border between the DRC and Rwanda in Goma will remain open.

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