UN: Expert meeting under way to decide if Ebola is emergency

The World Health Organization on Friday opened its expert meeting to decide whether the Ebola outbreak in Congo — which spilled into Uganda this week — should be declared a global emergency.

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WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a tweet that the committee will “review and make recommendations regarding the Ebola outbreak.” An announcement is expected Friday evening.

The virus has killed more than 1,400 people since the outbreak, the second-deadliest in history, was declared in August.

To be declared a global emergency, an outbreak must constitute a risk to other countries and require a coordinated response. The declaration typically triggers more funding and political attention.

On Thursday, WHO’s emergencies chief acknowledged the agency has been unable to track the origins of nearly half of new Ebola cases in Congo, suggesting it doesn’t know where the virus is spreading.

WHO’s expert committee has met twice previously to consider the situation in Congo. In April, the U.N. health agency said the outbreak was of “deep concern” but officials were “moderately optimistic” it could be contained within a “foreseeable time.”

The outbreak, occurring close to the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, has been like no other. Mistrust has been high in a region that had never faced Ebola before and attacks by rebel groups have undermined aid efforts.

Alexandra Phelan, a global health expert at Georgetown University, said the legal criteria for declaring Ebola a global emergency have long been met, even before the virus reached Uganda.

“I think the declaration should be made tonight,” she said. “Given that we are still seeing daily numbers of cases in the double digits and we do not have adequate surveillance, this indicates the outbreak is a persistent regional risk.”

Phelan said she was concerned WHO might be swayed by political considerations.

As the far deadlier 2014-16 Ebola outbreak raged in West Africa, WHO was heavily criticized for not declaring a global emergency until nearly 1,000 people had died and the virus had spread to at least three countries. Internal WHO documents later showed the agency feared the declaration would have economic and social implications for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

“It’s legitimate for countries to raise these concerns, but the basis on which WHO and its emergency committee should be looking at is the risk to public health and the risk of international spread,” Phelan said.

Dr. Axelle Ronsse, emergency coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres, was unsure whether a declaration would help. She said outbreak responders, including WHO, should reevaluate their strategies to contain the spiraling outbreak.

“It’s quite clear that it’s not under control,” she said. “Now may be the time to reset and see what should be changed at this point.”

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