A World Health Organization panel
decided on Friday not to declare an international emergency over Congo’s Ebola
outbreak despite its spread to Uganda this week, concluding such a declaration
could cause too much economic harm.
Congo’s epidemic is the second worst
ever, with 2,108 cases of Ebola and 1,411 deaths since last August. This week,
it reached Uganda, where three cases were recorded, all in people who had
arrived from Congo. Two of them died.
In a statement, the panel of 13
independent medical experts on the WHO’s Emergency Committee urged neighboring
“at risk” countries to improve their preparedness for detecting and managing
imported cases, “as Uganda has done”.
“This is not a global emergency, it
is an emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a severe emergency and it
may affect neighboring counties,” Dr. Preben Aavitsland, the panel’s acting
chair, told a news conference at the U.N. agency’s headquarters in Geneva.
“It was the view of the Committee
that there is really nothing to gain by declaring a PHEIC (Public Health
Emergency of International Concern), but there is potentially a lot to lose.”
Such a declaration would risk
creating restrictions on travel or trade “that could severely harm the economy
in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Aavitsland said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus, speaking by telephone from Kampala, said: “The spread of Ebola to
Uganda is a new development but the fundamental dynamics of the outbreak
Ugandan authorities have now drawn
up a list of 98 contacts, or contacts of contacts, potentially exposed to the
Ebola virus, of whom 10 are considered “high risk”, said Mike Ryan, executive
director of WHO’s emergencies program.
Vaccination of those contacts and
health workers with a Merck experimental vaccine is to start on Saturday, he
Some medical groups had urged the
committee to declare an emergency which would have led to boosting public
health measures, funding and resources.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the
Wellcome Trust medical charity and a specialist in infectious diseases, voiced
disappointment that the panel had failed to declare an emergency for the third
“I respect the advice of the
emergency committee but do believe a Public Health Emergency of International
Concern would have been justified,” Farrar said in a statement.
He added that declaring an emergency
would have raised levels of international political support “which has been
lacking to date”, and enhanced diplomatic, public health, security and logistic
Only four emergencies have been
declared in the past decade, including the worst ever Ebola outbreak, which hit
West Africa in 2014-2016. The others were an influenza pandemic in 2009, polio
in 2014 and the Zika virus in 2016.
Ryan told Reuters on Friday that
there had been no sign of local transmission of Ebola virus in Uganda.
“No evidence yet… But we’re not
out of the woods yet,” he said, noting that the incubation period is up to 21