The Ebola outbreak in the Congo could be declared a global emergency

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Jamey Keaten and Maria Cheng,

Published Friday, April 12, 2019 07:59 EDT

Last Updated Friday, 12 April 2019 09:40 EDT

GENEVA – A senior Red Cross official said on Friday he was "more worried than he ever was" about the possible regional spread of the Ebola virus in the Congo after a new peak in cases.

Emanuele Capobianco intervened in view of an important meeting of the World Health Organization which was held on Friday to decide whether to declare the Ebola epidemic in the northeast of the Congo an international health emergency.

To be designated an international public health emergency, a situation must be "serious, unusual or unexpected", threaten to infect other countries and require "an immediate international action".

The Ebola outbreak in the Congo, announced on August 1, has become the second most deadly in history, behind that of West Africa between 2014 and 2014 which killed more than 11,300 people.

The Congo's health ministry reported 1,206 confirmed and probable cases on Thursday, including 764 deaths.

Capobianco, head of health and assistance at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, quoted the statistics of the Congolese ministry of health on Thursday, showing 40 new cases over two days this week.

He called that speed unprecedented in this outbreak.

Ebola cases have increased in recent weeks and officials are progressively losing track of where the virus is spreading. Many new cases of Ebola are not related to previously identified patients and many people die in the community rather than in health centers where they could be isolated to prevent further infections.

"The numbers are increasing, so I am more worried than I have ever been about a potential regional spread," said Capobianco, while warning that it was a "personal" assessment.

He cited the lack of confidence in the treatment with Ebola in the community, which had never faced an Ebola epidemic before, and the insecurity caused by the rebel groups that damaged aid.

Previous global emergencies have been declared for the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the emergence of the Zika virus in the Americas and the international attempt to eradicate polio. The WHO has been criticized for not declaring the 2014 Ebola epidemic an international emergency until nearly 1,000 people had died and the disease had spread across the borders.

Emergency statements almost always stimulate global attention and donor funding. In the last few weeks, the WHO has noted that it is sadly running out of $ 148 million that it says is needed to fight Ebola for the next six months. By mid-March it had received only $ 74 million.

The WHO reported Thursday in a weekly bulletin of Ebola that 57 health areas in the Congo reported new cases in the last three weeks.

The epidemic is occurring near the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, with South Sudan not far away.

Tariq Riebl, who is based in the current Ebola hot spot, Butembo, for the International Rescue Committee, said that a major obstacle to stopping the epidemic is that officials are simply unaware of how many cases of There are Ebola.

"We are discovering people when it is too late," he said, noting that numerous cases were buried in secret and never reported to the authorities. "Given the average number of cases we are seeing now, this will not be finished for at least another six months or more."

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Cheng reported from London