London, Aug. 8: Facing the worst known outbreak of the Ebola virus, with almost 1,000 fatalities in West Africa, the World Health Organisation declared an international public health emergency today, demanding an “extraordinary” response — only the third such declaration of its kind since regulations permitting such alarms were adopted in 2007.
The organisation 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 organisation, 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.
Margaret Chan, the World Health Organisation's director general, told a news conference at the body's Geneva headquarters: “This is the largest, most severe, most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of the disease.”
“I am declaring the current outbreak of the Ebola virus disease a public health emergency of international concern,” she added. “Countries affected to date simply don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak on this scale on their own.”
The WHO urged all states where the disease is spreading to declare a state of emergency, to screen all people leaving at international airports, seaports and land crossings, and to prevent travel by anyone suspected of having the Ebola virus.
The move is aimed at containing the disease. But the organisation did not recommend a ban on travel to or from places with outbreaks because of the low risk of infection. “We don’t believe a general ban on that kind of travel makes any kind of sense at all,” Dr Fukuda said.
The declaration was apparently intended to display a more aggressive stance by the health organisation. In the past, it has often bent to pressure from member states demanding that there be no consequences.
But health specialists remain critical of the international response.“Declaring Ebola an international public health emergency shows how seriously WHO is taking the current outbreak; but statements won’t save lives,” said Bart Janssens, the director of operations at Doctors Without Borders.