WHO declare Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo an international health emergency

  • Video report by ITV News Africa Correspondent John Ray

The outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been declared an international health emergency by the World Health Organisation.

A WHO expert committee declined on three previous occasions to advise the United Nations health agency to make the declaration despite the death of a five-year-old boy in neighbouring Uganda back in June.

Women coming from Congo wash their hands with chlorinated water to prevent the spread of infection. Credit: AP

This week a case of Ebola was confirmed in the city of Goma, a major regional crossroads on the Rwandan border and home to two million people, sparking new fears the disease was spreading across countries.

The second worst Ebola breakout has already killed 1,600 people since last August.

At the announcement in Geneva on Wednesday evening, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: "The (international emergency) should not be used to stigmatise or penalise the very people who are most in need of our help."

Dr Tedros advised against putting border closures in place or restricting travel which could "hamper the fight" against the deadly disease as people would find informal borders to cross which could spread the virus.

He called for international co-operation and financial aid for the beleaguered region.

A health worker wearing protective suits enters an isolation pod to treat a patient. Credit: AP

“The government of DRC is showing exceptional transparency in sharing information every single day. They are doing everything it can. They need the support of the international community. That includes its financial support,” he said.

International development secretary Rory Stewart announced earlier this week that Britain would donate up to another £50 million for the Ebola response and called for other countries, especially Francophone ones, to increase their support.

Ebola workers enter a house to decontaminate the body of a woman suspected of dying from Ebola. Credit: AP

This is only the fifth time in history such a declaration has been declared. Previous emergencies were put in place for the devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people, the emergence of Zika in the Americas, the swine flu pandemic and polio eradication.

WHO defines a global emergency as an "extraordinary event" which constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response.

Ebola victim being buried at the Muslim cemetery in Beni, Congo DRC. Credit: AP

The priest who died of Ebola in Goma used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city, Congolese officials said. Health workers were desperately trying to trace dozens of people he may have made contact with, including those who had travelled on the same bus.

Earlier this week, Ugandan health officials said a Congolese fish trader had travelled to Uganda while sick and vomited several times at a local market. The woman returned to Congo last week and died after testing positive for Ebola. Ugandan officials estimate almost 600 people could be targeted for vaccination and follow-up.