The World Health Organization on Friday declared the Ebola outbreak that is spreading across West Africa to be a “public health emergency of international concern.” The group also said Ebola took an additional 29 lives between Tuesday and Wednesday alone.
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the announcement is “a clear call for international solidarity” but also said many countries would probably not see any Ebola cases.
The Geneva-based U.N. health agency said the possible consequences of a further international spread of the outbreak, which has killed almost 1,000 people in four West African countries, were “particularly serious” in view of the virulence of the virus.
“A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop and reverse the international spread of Ebola,” the WHO said in a statement after a two-day meeting of its emergency committee on Ebola.
The organization stopped short of saying there should be general international travel or trade bans, but acknowledged that the outbreak, already in its sixth month, was far from being contained.
One major international medical organization, Doctors Without Borders, responded to the statement with a renewed call for a “massive deployment” of health specialists to the stricken countries. “Lives are being lost because the response is too slow,” it said.
Unlike previous outbreaks of the Ebola virus, which had occurred in isolated areas, the West African epidemic erupted in areas with more traffic, trade and freedom of movement, facilitating transmission of the disease. The affected countries also have weak health infrastructures and lacked the capacity to respond effectively when the outbreak occurred.
Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s head of health security, said that “things will get worse for a while,” and that “we are fully prepared for addressing this for some months.”
But the WHO also said that the disease could be contained. “This is not a mysterious disease,” Fukuda said in a telephone briefing with journalists. “This is an infectious disease that can be contained. It is not a virus that is spread through the air.”
There is currently no licensed vaccine or treatment for Ebola, although experimental drugs are being explored after two American medical missionaries infected with the virus appeared to show signs of improvement after taking new medications.
About 54% of people who have been infected in this latest outbreak have died.
The World Council of Churches has expressed a “deep and shared concern” to its member churches in West Africa over reports concerning “the Ebola crisis and its devastating impact on the lives of men, women and children living in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.
“What affects one, affects us all”. wrote Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, associate and acting general secretary of the WCC, in recognizing the anxiety and isolation of patients and their families as well as the risks faced by “the many caring local and international health service providers who are giving medical care and support to those at risk or already infected by Ebola.”
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