WHO declares Ebola outbreak an international emergency

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Monday, August 11, 2014

On Friday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated the West African Ebola outbreak is now an international health emergency.

The current ongoing outbreak of Ebola is the deadliest since the disease was first reported in humans 40 years ago, with nearly 1,000 people reported to have been killed by the disease in this outbreak. So far three countries, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria, have declared national emergencies in response to the outbreak, with cases also reported in Guinea. The latter country was reported to have closed its borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia, but an official announcement later clarified they were taking medical precautions on border crossings.

Dr Margaret Chan, Director General of WHO
Image: January.

Director-General of WHO Dr Margaret Chan appealed for an international response to the outbreak, calling it "the largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of this disease". Reports say the comparatively underdeveloped medical infrastructure in the affected countries has hampered efforts to contain the spread of the virus, with Liberia's health system particularly under-equipped for the pressure. Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) said the health system in Liberia was "falling apart". Health experts and aid workers from Europe and America are already working to help bring the outbreak under control, but MSF and WHO are now calling for more help.

The announcement by WHO has international law implications, and it is expected possible cases will not be allowed to leave the countries affected until it is confirmed they are clear of the virus, with the possibility of travel being denied from any region not meeting the WHO's guidelines. WHO have also warned all nations should prepare to bring their own nationals back to home territory for treatment if infected by the virus, with cases already returned for treatment to the US and Spain.

WHO vaccine chief Jean-Marie Okwo Bele told AFP he expected a possible vaccine against Ebola to start clinical trials next month, stating: "Since this is an emergency, we can put emergency procedures in place [...] so that we can have a vaccine available by 2015". WHO assistant director-general Marie-Paule Kieny admitted, however, to do so the bar set during the testing process would have to be lower, reflecting questions about the ethics of using comparatively untested drugs, and who they should be given to.

Meanwhile, restrictions put in place to limit the spread of the disease are reported to be causing problems among those affected in already impoverished areas. Liberia and Sierra Leone are both reported to have deployed soldiers to limit travel within these countries, with many residents reported to be worried about the effect on their trade and incomes. The Telegraph reported from interviews, there is also resistance to some measures in Liberia, where there is a strong stigma attached to the disease. This has led to many people refusing to report the deaths of family members and hand their bodies over for cremation. There have also been cases of violence towards those seeking to enforce government measures to limit the disease's spread.


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