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Expand chart
Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios

The World Health Organization declined Friday to declare a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern," (PHEIC} its highest alert level, despite a sharp uptick in the number and geographical spread of cases of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Why it matters: This is already the second-largest Ebola outbreak on record, with more than 1,000 cases of the hemorrhagic fever so far, and it's the first to occur in a country where there is widespread civil unrest.

The details: The outbreak, which began in August, has killed 751 and sickened 1,186 as of April 9, according to WHO and DRC Ministry of Health data.

  • During the past few weeks, a dramatic increase in the number of cases, and the prevalence of community cases — patients unknown to health workers who often die at home, exposing caretakers to the virus — have raised concerns and prompted a WHO committee meeting to determine if an emergency declaration was warranted.
  • "The emergency committee almost unanimously decided against recommending a public health emergency of international concern," said Robert Steffen, chair of the WHO's Emergency Committee, during a press conference in Geneva.
  • Steffen said an emergency was not warranted because the outbreak has not spread to any other country, though there's nothing preventing its spread.

Between the lines: The WHO has been criticized for moving too slowly to declare a public health emergency during this outbreak while issuing optimistic outlooks about its ability to contain it, despite a steady rise in cases, an anemic international response effort and multiple deadly attacks on Ebola treatment facilities and workers.

  • According to Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, an emergency declaration is the best option at the WHO's disposal:
"I am deeply disappointed by today’s decision to not declare a PHEIC. The statement that there would be no added benefits of a PHEIC declaration is misplaced. Potential benefits are not criteria by which these decisions should be made. The decision to declare a PHEIC should be made on technical merits, not political ones."
  • Alexandra Phelan, a health expert at Georgetown University, also criticized the WHO's decision:
"The persistence of community and health care workers’ cases and high risk of regional spread means that significantly greater financial, political, and technical support is urgently needed. A PHEIC declaration is intended to garner this support and provide guidance to the international community. This is not only a missed opportunity but undermines the international law developed to safeguard global health.” 

By the numbers: The WHO's director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the WHO needs $104 million until July 31 to close a funding gap in order to continue to fight the disease in the DRC.

  • The WHO says it needs a total of $148 million to carry out its Ebola fight.

But, but but: A lack of an emergency declaration may work against the fundraising effort, Nuzzo says.

  • "The reason that’s been given for not declaring a [Public Health Emergency] has been skepticism that it will result in anything," she says, referring to additional resources from the international community.
  • "While I can understand where that skepticism is coming from ... I also know that not declaring it certainly doesn’t wake up world leaders either."

Go deeper: Ebola outbreak passes 900 cases amid urgent new warnings

Go deeper

35 mins ago - World

WHO revises air quality guidelines to reduce deaths from pollution

Smoke from California wildfires over the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in August 2021. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Wednesday updated air quality guidelines it set roughly 15 years ago, saying that negative health effects from air pollutants can begin at lower levels than it previously thought.

Why it matters: The changes are meant to reduce deaths from pollutants that cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and prematurely kill an estimated 7 million people around the world annually, according to the WHO.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
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The road to COP26 gets slightly easier

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The bad diplomatic vibes heading into the critical United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, might be improving slightly.

Catch up fast: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday pledged to end overseas finance for building new coal-fired power plants and boost support for clean energy in developing nations.

Corporations turn focus to retaining frontline workers

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Companies are narrowing the blue- and white-collar experience as they're forced to adapt to a worker-led market.

Driving the news: Basic office tools and concepts like corporate communications and schedule flexibility are migrating to frontline operations through investments in technology.