UN panel stops short of declaring Ebola a global health emergency

UN panel stops short of declaring Ebola a global health emergency

By Luke Vargas   
Published
A Red Cross worker performs health checks at the DRC-Uganda border. June 2019. Courtesy: International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
A Red Cross worker performs health checks at the DRC-Uganda border earlier this month. (Courtesy: International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies)

While those crossing the DRC-Uganda border should be screened for the disease, the WHO is not recommending Ebola checks at airports.

NEW YORK – Good news! Or is it? An ongoing Ebola outbreak in two Central African countries remains a health emergency but should not be considered a global crisis. That’s what a panel of the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO) decided Friday.

The latest Ebola outbreak began in remote jungle areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo last August and has thus far claimed at least 1,400 lives. Earlier this week, it spread into neighboring Uganda, but officials say they’ve been ready for just such an event.

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus:

“The fact that it has taken this long [for Ebola to spread to Uganda] is a testament to the incredible work of all partners on both sides of the border.”

“The spread of Ebola to Uganda is a new development, but the fundamental dynamics of the outbreak haven’t changed.”

Just because Ebola isn’t a global emergency hardly means health officials in Central Africa can start to relax their response. For instance, WHO officials recommended that every person crossing the Congo-Uganda border continue to be screened for Ebola.

What isn’t necessary, the agency said, are screenings at airports across Africa and around the world, which you may have remembered from a much deadlier Ebola outbreak several years ago.

Dr. Alexandra Phelan is on the faculty of Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security and says the WHO is often between a rock and hard place when it comes to declaring an official “A Public Health Emergency of International Concern” or PHEIC – the threshold they stopped just short of on Friday:

“When they declared H1N1 influenza back in 2009 a PHEIC they were criticized for acting too quickly. When they declared the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa in West Africa a PHEIC quite late they were criticized for their delay.”

This time around Phelan thinks the WHO displayed an obvious  hesitancy about crying wolf lest a more serious outbreak emerge that requiring greater global concern.

“What the emergency committee said today was that it really came down to what they saw as the lack of benefit from the risk of overreaction.”

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