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WHO amps up global Ebola warning after spread to big Congo city

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

The World Health Organization Wednesday issued a global health warning on the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, although they added that the risk of the deadly virus spreading outside the region remains low.

Why it matters: The official intensification of the warning — caused partly by geographical expansion of cases including at least one in the large, international city of Goma, plus renewed violence against health care workers that killed 2 recently — is expected to spur WHO's 196 members to offer more resources and better organize an international response to this outbreak.

Between the lines: The declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) will not immediately change anything on the ground — but it could lead to much-needed funding and the possible creation of a new UN body to coordinate international responses, says Julie Fischer, co-director of Georgetown University's Center for Global Health Science and Security.

  • "People on the ground are in a very difficult situation," Fischer tells Axios. "We should make sure they have the resources they need day-to-day, not literally worrying about supplies running out."
  • While PHEIC does not legally mandate action from its members, it alerts them of the urgency of the situation and offers specific recommendations of best evidence-based practices, she adds.

Details, per WHO's press conference:

  • There's alarm because the outbreak now has a geographic reach of roughly 500 km, says Robert Steffen, chair of the WHO's Ebola emergency committee. Beni, a city in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, remains the epicenter, with 46% of the cases over the last 3 weeks.
  • The committee recommended that borders with neighboring countries or other countries should not be closed at this time, as this could have negative consequences, Steffen said.

What they're saying: In a statement issued Thursday, Oxfam said...

"We echo the WHO’s call for authorities to allow borders to remain open, so people can cross safely at official points where they can be screened for Ebola. Given the intense conflict in the region, there’s a huge risk of people crossing illegally if borders are closed."
"Millions of people are also dependent on cross border trade and if this lifeline is cut off it would only generate more anger and distrust towards the Ebola response."

The latest: Multiple reports say a DRC Ministry of Health official today announced that police and soldiers will "force" people to take measures like hand washing and checking for fevers when necessary to prevent further spread.

Meanwhile, concerns over the amount of available vaccines grows, despite the DRC recently agreeing to use half-doses of the current Merck vaccine (the only experimental vaccine currently allowed in DRC).

  • Even with the new half-dose regime and Merck's plan to develop more, DRC needs to limit itself to the ring vaccination method (instead of wider preventative vaccination) in case the infection spreads further in large cities or other countries, Fischer warns.

Look at WHO's timeline of this outbreak.

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