GENEVA — The World Health Organization on Friday said the ongoing Ebola outbreak in Congo — which spilled into Uganda this week — is an “extraordinary event” of deep concern but does not yet merit being declared a global emergency.
The U.N. health agency convened its expert committee for the third time to assess the outbreak, which some experts say met the criteria to be designated an international emergency long ago.
This outbreak, the second-deadliest in history, has killed more than 1,400 people since it was declared in August.
At a press briefing following the meeting, Dr. Preben Aavitsland, the acting chair of the committee, announced that the outbreak is “a health emergency in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” but that the situation does not yet meet the criteria for being declared a global one.
For such a declaration, an outbreak must constitute a risk to other countries and require a coordinated response. The declaration typically triggers more funding and political attention.
Aavitsland said the committee was “deeply disappointed” that WHO and the affected countries have not received the funding needed to stop the outbreak and delivered a blunt message to donors: “Step up.”
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.
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 amid the challenges, 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.”
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.
“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,” she said.
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.”