The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday declared the killer Ebola epidemic ravaging parts
of West Africa an international health emergency and appealed for global aid to help afflicted countries.
The decision came after a rare, two-day closed-door session of the UN health body’s
emergency committee,which urged exit screening of all people flying out of affected countries,
where nearly 1,000 people have died.
The WHO stopped short of calling for global travel restrictions, urging airlines to take strict precautions
but to continue flying to the area.
And it called on countries and airports around the globe to be prepared to
“detect, investigate and manage”
Ebola cases if they should arise.
The WHO move comes as US health authorities admitted on Thursday that Ebola’s spread beyond
West Africa was “inevitable”, and after medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF)
warned that the deadly virus was now “out of control” with more than 60 outbreak hotspots.
WHO director-general Dr Margaret Chan appealed for greater help for the countries worst hit by the
“largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of this disease”.
“I am declaring the current outbreak a public health emergency of international concern,
” Chan said, stressing the “serious and unusual nature of the outbreak”.
Defining the epidemic a public health emergency of international concern — a label only used twice before,
during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and last May for the reemergence of polio in
a number of countries —“alerts the world to the need for high vigilance,” she said.
However she noted that only a small part of the African continent had been affected.
A patient in Uganda tested negative for Ebola as fears were sparked of a spread to East Africa.
Meanwhile Benin — to the east of the main affected countries — awaited test results from two patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
Ebola has claimed at least 932 lives and infected more than 1,700 people
since breaking out in Guinea earlier this year, according to the WHO.
States of emergency were in effect in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone — something WHO said was a first necessary step to bringing the outbreak under control.
Support for health workers and ensuring they have proper protective equipment and training is essential,
WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda told reporters.
“This outbreak really underscores the importance of having strong health systems,” he said.
Despite the new measures, Fukuda acknowledged “the likelihood is that it will get worse before it gets better,” adding that WHO was bracing to deal with the outbreak “at some level for some number of months”.
Soldiers in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount province — one of the worst-affected areas — set up road blocks to limit travel to the capital Monrovia, as bodies reportedly lay unburied in the city’s streets.
In Sierra Leone, which has the most confirmed infections, 800 troops were sent to guard hospitals treating Ebola patients. Two towns in the east of the country were put under quarantine
and entertainment venues across the country were ordered shut.
In Nigeria — where the outbreak has so far been minor compared to the other affected countries, with two dead and five others infected — public sector doctors suspended a nearly five-week strike to help battle the deadly virus and prevent it from taking hold in Africa’s most populous country.
As African nations struggled with the scale of the epidemic, the scientists who discovered the virus in 1976 have called for an experimental drug being used on two infected Americans to also be made available for African victims.
The two infected Americans, who worked for Christian aid agencies in Liberia, have shown signs of improvement since being given ZMapp, which is made by US company Mapp Pharmaceuticals.
Spain also flew home a 75-yearold Roman Catholic priest, Miguel Pajares, the first European victim of the epidemic, on Thursday. Officials said his condition was stable.
There is no proven treatment or cure for Ebola and the use of the
experimental drug has sparked an ethical debate,
and WHO is planning a special meeting next week to discuss the issue.
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