The World Health Organisation has declared the ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.
It is the largest and longest outbreak ever recorded of ebola, which has a death rate of about 50 per cent and has so far killed at least 932 people. WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and for polio in May.
WHO chief Dr Margaret Chan said the announcement was “a clear call for international solidarity”, although she acknowledged 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,” Ms Chan said at a news conference in Geneva. “I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible.”
The agency had convened an expert committee this week to assess the severity of the continuing epidemic.
The current outbreak of ebola began in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia, with a suspected cluster in Nigeria. There is no licensed treatment or vaccine for ebola.
The impact of the WHO declaration is unclear; the declaration about polio does not yet seem to have slowed the spread of the virus.
“Statements won’t save lives,” said Dr Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “For weeks (we) have been repeating that a massive medical, epidemiological and public health response is desperately needed. Lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”
“I don’t know what the advantage is of declaring an international emergency,” added Dr David Heymann, who directed WHO’s response to the Sars outbreak and is now a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.