GENEVA — The World Health Organization, or WHO, has declared the latest Ebola outbreak in Congo a “public health emergency of international concern” after more suspected cases were detected in the eastern city of Goma.
The WHO decision followed the recommendation of a committee of experts that met Wednesday in Geneva, and could free up more funds and other resources to combat the outbreak. The WHO’s estimated budget for the first six months of the year was only half covered.
Robert Steffen, head of the committee, stressed that the outbreak remained a regional threat: “This is in no way a global threat. This is a regional emergency,” he said.
Neighboring countries South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in particular are on high alert. The WHO called on neighbors to boost risk coordination and “improve their preparedness for detecting and managing imported cases.”
The WHO stressed that countries should not close their borders, since this could actually make the crisis worse if people sneak across the border undetected rather than taking official routes.
“No country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel and trade,” the WHO said in a statement. “The Committee does not consider entry screening at airports or other ports of entry outside the region to be necessary.”
Ebola, which can also spread through blood, vomit and other bodily fluids, is a highly infectious disease that causes a fever and often leads to massive internal bleeding and death.
Twenty-two people are suspected of having the disease in Goma, Congo’s Ministry of Health said Wednesday, after the first case in the major urban center near the border with Rwanda was detected over the weekend.
“The 22 suspected cases in Goma are not directly related to the pastor,” Miphy Buata, a ministry spokeswoman, told dpa, referring to the Christian pastor who was the first confirmed case in the city and who died of the virus Tuesday.
The ministry has been vaccinating people who came into contact with the pastor. No one else has been confirmed to have Ebola in the city.
The WHO is concerned in part because the outbreak remains uncontrolled after a year. It estimates that only 75% of cases are discovered.
Since last year, eastern Congo has been at the center of the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history. So far more than 1,600 people have died from the virus in Congo and more than 2,500 cases have been detected.
Authorities and aid groups have struggled to control the outbreak amid a local population suspicious of health workers and treatment centers being attacked and burned.
Uganda also detected three additional cases in June. All three patients died in the middle of the month and no further cases have been detected in the country.