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WHO Says Ebola Is Now A 'Public Health Emergency Of International Concern'


And it is official. The Ebola outbreak that's been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo for nearly a year is now an international health emergency. The head of the World Health Organization made that decision today. NPR's Nurith Aizenman reports.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: More than 2,500 people have been infected with Ebola in this outbreak, yet three times already, WHO's director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, considered but declined to designate the epidemic an international emergency. At a press conference today, Dr. Tedros said two developments convinced him it was time to take this step. Over the weekend, a pastor with Ebola reached the Congolese city of Goma. Here's Tedros.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: A city of 2 million people on the border with Rwanda and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.

AIZENMAN: Also health officials say there's been a new instance of Ebola reaching Uganda. Today they reported the case of a woman who had crossed into Uganda earlier this month while she was sick. She vomited several times in a market there before returning to Congo, where she died. Tedros says...


GHEBREYESUS: These two events represent a concerning geographical expansion of the virus.

AIZENMAN: Now, the WHO director general stressed that there's no evidence that the virus has spread beyond the cases they announced today, either in Uganda or in the city of Goma. And he warned that it would be disastrous if other countries were to respond by imposing any trade or travel restrictions on Congo.


GHEBREYESUS: Such restrictions force people to use informal and unmonitored border crossings, increasing the potential for the spread of diseases.

AIZENMAN: Larry Gostin is a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, who directs the WHO's Center on Global Health Law in Washington, D.C. He says fear of border closures is precisely why Tedros resisted sounding the alarm for so long.

LARRY GOSTIN: The Democratic Republic of Congo Ministry of Health did not want an emergency to be declared.

AIZENMAN: But Gostin says while the risk of an overreaction by other countries is real, this declaration was really necessary.

GOSTIN: I think it's long overdue. They probably should have declared it four months ago.

AIZENMAN: That's when there was a major uptick in violence directly targeting Ebola responders. The outbreak is in an area that's seen years of conflict between dozens of rebel militias and the government. Many people in the community distrust officials and, by extension, health workers. And multiple times since late February, armed men have stormed Ebola treatment centers and even killed Ebola responders, including two just this past weekend. And that's disrupted crucial activities like identifying Ebola cases and vaccinating their contacts. Gostin says the international community has largely refused to send experts to the outbreak zone, leaving it to the WHO to send hundreds of its own staff to supplement Congolese health workers and private aid groups.

GOSTIN: WHO is waging a heroic battle but virtually on its own.

AIZENMAN: The organization has also gotten less than half of the $98 million it spent to fight this outbreak, forcing it to dip into other programs to make up the difference. And Tedros said today that the bill for the next six months will run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The director general said unless the international community steps up and funds the response now, the world will be paying for this outbreak for a long time to come.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.