By Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland
GENEVA/LONDON (Reuters) – Disease experts were evaluating on Friday whether an outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that has killed more than 700 people and is continuing to spread now constitutes an international emergency, the World Health Organization said.
WHO’s independent Emergency Committee will analyse the latest epidemiological data to detect any evolution in the deadly virus and whether it may cross borders to neighbouring Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Panel chairman Professor Robert Steffen is to announce the decision at a 1700gmt press conference. Declaring the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” would signal that greater resources and international coordination are needed. It could also include recommendations on travel or trade.
“They will look into what is the risk of international spread, has this risk got bigger since the last time they met, and what is the capacity of the response,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told a Geneva news briefing.
Experts have declared four emergencies in the past decade: the H1N1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic (2009), a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014), polio (2014) and Zika virus (2016).
The Ebola outbreak – by far the biggest Congo has seen, and the world’s second largest in history – was declared by national authorities in August last year. It is concentrated in Congo’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
It has already infected at least 1,206 people, of whom 764 have died – giving a death rate of 63 percent.
They include 20 new confirmed cases reported by the health ministry on Thursday, another one-day record after 18 on Wednesday. Two workers at the Butembo airport tested positive, it said.
Transmission has intensified in Butembo and Katwa in northeast Congo, leading to an increase in cases reported in recent weeks, after a period of decline, the WHO said.
Attacks by armed groups, including the setting on fire of an Ebola treatment centre run by Medecins Sans Frontieres in February, cut off access for health workers to some areas.
“It’s normal that when you start regaining the access you see those cases … and that partially explains the rise in numbers,” Jasarevic said.
Nearly 100,000 people have been vaccinated so far.
Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids. It causes hemorrhagic fever with severe vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding. A devastating epidemic of the viral disease swept through Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea in West Africa from 2014-2016 and killed more than 11,300 people.
Experts said a key factor hampering efforts to bring this epidemic under control is a lack of trust among the affected communities in health workers.
“The community in North Kivu must be at the centre of the response, their trust and ownership is critical and is extremely challenging,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of Britain’s Wellcome Trust global health charity, said in a statement.
Essential measures include trust, communication, care of patients and their families, infection control, contact tracing, ring vaccination and safe burials. “It is ultimately these measures that will bring this epidemic to an end,” he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Kate Kelland; Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Hugh Lawson)