Congo Ebola Outbreak Now Global Health Emergency

The World Health Organization has confirmed that the deadly Ebola outbreak in Congo is now a global health emergency. WHO defines a global emergency as an “extraordinary event” that constitutes a risk to other countries and requires a coordinated international response. This is only the fifth such declaration in history. A declaration of a global health emergency often brings greater international attention and aid.

The decision to declare the outbreak a global health emergency was made after a single case was confirmed in Goma, a city of 2 million people in northeastern Congo on the Rwandan border. Goma is more than 220 miles (350 kilometers) south of where the outbreak was first detected. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “The case in Goma could potentially be a game changer in this epidemic. It is a gateway to the region and the world.”

Ebola’s arrival in eastern Congo’s main city of Goma severely raises the risk of the virus spreading. In eastern Congo, many do business across borders and travel overseas via its international airport. The area is also considered a war zone, with dozens of rebel groups active in the area. Mistrust among locals and deadly attacks on health workers have hampered efforts to halt the outbreak.

The patient who brought Ebola to Goma was a priest who became infected during a visit to the town of Butembo, 200 km (124 miles) north of Goma. He apparently used several fake names to conceal his identity on his way to the city. WHO said the man had died and health workers were scrambling to trace dozens of his contacts. So far, 60 contacts have been identified, including 18 who were on the bus with the priest, and half of them have been vaccinated.

WHO’s emergency committee will meet again within three months to reassess the situation and determine whether the outbreak is still a global emergency. The outbreak has already reached the status of the world’s second worst epidemic, infecting 2,500 people and killing 1,655. The devastating 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa is considered the worst, killing more than 11,000 people.