The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) does not qualify as an international threat, even though cases have been confirmed in neighbouring Uganda.
“It was the view of the committee that the outbreak is a health emergency in DRC and the region, but does not meet the criteria for a public health emergency of international concern,” the United Nations health agency’s expert committee said in a statement on Friday after an emergency meeting.
Despite the outcome of the deliberations, “this outbreak is very much an emergency,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a Geneva press conference via telephone from the DRC.
The virus has killed more than 1,400 people since its outbreak – the second-deadliest in history – was declared in August last year after emerging in eastern DRC’s northern Kivu and Ituri provinces.
To be declared a global emergency, an outbreak must constitute a risk to other countries and require a coordinated response. The declaration typically triggers more funding and political attention.
Speaking from the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa, said there was now a stronger political engagement to make sure the outbreak was contained.
“It will take longer than originally anticipated,” she told Al Jazeera.
“However, we still believe that it can be contained. It will need a multi-facet response not a simple public health response as had initially been thought. But we anticipate that it will eventually be contained.”
On Thursday, the WHO acknowledged that it had been unable to track the origins of nearly half of new Ebola cases in the DRC, suggesting it did not know where the virus was spreading.
The United Nations health agency said on Thursday that two people had died in Uganda after arriving with the disease from the DRC.
Its expert committee has met twice previously to consider the situation in the DRC. In April, the WHO said the outbreak was of “deep concern” but officials were “moderately optimistic” it could be contained within a “foreseeable time.”
The outbreak, occurring close to the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan, has been like no other. Community mistrust has been high and attacks by rebel groups have undermined aid efforts.
Experts say people are still dying outside of Ebola treatment centres, exposing their families to the disease, and many do not appear on lists of known contacts being monitored.
“Vaccines alone can’t work if community hides cases due to distrust. Violence persists. We are in this for the long haul,” Lawrence Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said, referring to deadly attacks on health facilities in the DRC.
According to the WHO, more than 100 attacks on treatment centres and health workers in the DRC have been recorded since the beginning of this year.
As the far deadlier 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak raged in West Africa, the WHO was heavily criticised 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 that the agency feared the declaration would have economic and social implications for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. More than 11,300 people died in the three countries.
Before the WHO panel’s move, Axelle Ronsse, emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, had expressed uncertainty whether a declaration would help. She said outbreak responders, including the WHO, should reevaluate their strategies to contain the spiralling 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.”