The World Health Organization took the rare step Wednesday of classifying an ongoing Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo as a “public health emergency of international concern,” just days after a first case of the virus was confirmed in the major city of Goma on the border with Rwanda.
The last time the global health body declared an international emergency for Ebola was during the 2014-2016 outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people. The designation means this outbreak qualifies for a higher level of global vigilance and mobilization to stem its spread.
Ebola began spreading in Congo’s conflict-ridden North Kivu province last summer and has infected more than 2,500 people and killed nearly 1,700, according to official Health Ministry figures.
The decision was made by a committee of 10 scientists who had three times earlier declined to issue the declaration for the current outbreak.
The committee said delays in funding had constrained the response and hoped the declaration would add to the international community’s sense of urgency. But members also cautioned against using the declaration to impose punitive travel restrictions on countries in the affected area.
The declaration should not be used “as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region,” said Robert Steffen, chairman of the Emergency Committee.