Ebola virus

WHO declares Ebola outbreak an ‘international emergency’ as death toll nears 1,000

WHO chief announces 'a clear call for international solidarity' but acknowledges that many countries would probably not have any cases of the disease

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 11:49am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 7:07pm

The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.

The WHO announced the Ebola outbreak – the largest and longest in history – is worrying enough to merit being declared an international health emergency. The WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and for polio in May.

The WHO chief, Dr Margaret Chan, said the announcement is “a clear call for international solidarity” but acknowledged that many countries would probably not have any Ebola cases.

“Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own,” Chan said at a news conference in Geneva. “I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible.”

States of emergency were in effect across overwhelmed West African nations on Friday with the death toll from the epidemic nearing 1,000. 

Soldiers in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount province – one of the worst-affected areas – set up road blocks to limit travel to the capital, Monrovia, where lawmakers gathered to ratify a 90-day state of emergency as bodies reportedly lay unburied in the city’s streets.

Two towns in the east of Sierra Leone, Kailahun and Kenema, where put under quarantine on Thursday, a government spokesman said, as nightclubs and entertainment venues across the country were ordered shut.

Public sector doctors in Nigeria suspended a month-long strike with fears rising that the virus is taking hold in Africa’s most populous country. The deadly tropical disease has already killed two and infected five others in Lagos.

Ebola has claimed at least 932 lives and infected more than 1,700 people since breaking out in West Africa earlier this year, according to the WHO.

As African nations struggled with the scale of the epidemic, the scientists who discovered the virus in 1976 have called for an experimental drug being used on two infected Americans to also be made available for African victims.

One of the three, Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said “African countries should have the same opportunity” to use ZMapp, which is made by US company Mapp Pharmaceuticals.

Ebola causes severe fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding. It is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, and people who live with or care for patients are most at risk.

Spain flew home a 75-year-old Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, the first European victim of the epidemic, on Thursday as Britain gave a further US$5 million in aid to shore up Sierra Leone’s beleaguered health system.

A specially equipped military Airbus A310 brought Pajares to Madrid with a Spanish nun, Juliana Bonoha Bohe, who had worked at the same hospital in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. She did not test positive for the haemorrhagic fever, the Spanish government said.

Officials said his condition was stable with no signs of bleeding, while the nun appeared to be well.

The two infected Americans, who worked for Christian aid agencies in Liberia, have shown signs of improvement since being flown to a specialist hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. They are being given ZMapp, according to reports.

There is no proven treatment or cure for Ebola and the use of the experimental drug has sparked an ethical debate.

US President Barack Obama said it was too soon to send the experimental drugs to West Africa.

“I think we have to let the science guide us. And I don't think all the information is in on whether this drug is helpful,” Obama said on Wednesday.

US regulators meanwhile loosened restrictions on another experimental drug, which may allow it to be tried on infected patients in West Africa, the company said.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said Liberians should expect certain rights to be suspended as the country imposes “extraordinary measures” necessary for “the very survival of our state”.

People from infected zones must not be allowed to carry the virus into non-infected zones, Information Minister Lewis Brown said.

The Liberian government complained that its citizens were being harassed and stereotyped in Nigeria following the death in a Lagos hospital of one of its citizens infected with Ebola.

In Sierra Leone, which has the most confirmed infections, 800 troops were sent to guard hospitals treating Ebola patients, an army spokesman said.

First discovered in 1976 and named after a river in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ebola has killed around two-thirds of those infected, with two outbreaks registering fatality rates approaching 90 per cent. The latest outbreak has a fatality rate of around 55 per cent.

The impact of the WHO declaration is unclear; the declaration about polio doesn’t yet seem to have slowed the spread of virus. During a WHO meeting last week to reconsider the status of polio, experts noted countries hadn’t yet fully applied the recommendations made in May, there have been more instances of international spread and that outbreaks have worsened in Pakistan and Cameroon.

In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have already elevated their Ebola response to the highest level and has recommended against travelling to West Africa. On Thursday, CDC director Dr Tom Frieden told a Congressional hearing that the current outbreak is set to sicken more people than all previous outbreaks of the disease combined.

“I don’t know what the advantage is of declaring an international emergency,” said Dr David Heymann, who directed the WHO’s response to the Sars outbreak and is now a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“This could bring in more foreign aid but we don’t know that yet,” he said.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse