The second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola virus in history has become an international public health emergency, the World Health Organization said Wednesday, a declaration that marks a new level of concern about the infection.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the health group was concerned that the virus could spread outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Although there is no evidence yet of local Ebola transmission in either Goma, DRC or Uganda, these two events represent a concerning geographical expansion of the virus,” the director general said at a press conference. Goma is a large city on the border with Rwanda.
The outbreak began in August 2018 and has infected more than 2,300 people and killed more than 1,500, according to a July 9 WHO report. In early June, a few cases were confirmed in neighboring Uganda, and now the disease has reached a Congolese city near Rwanda, sparking fear that one of the deadliest diseases on Earth could spread across the region.
WHO officials said Tuesday that there were currently no confirmed cases in Uganda, despite concerns over a woman who last week crossed the country’s border back into Congo and later died.
It’s the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, after the 2013-to-2016 outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people, mostly in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The public health emergency declaration is reserved for extraordinary circumstances, according to the WHO. It can help mobilize international response to an outbreak, provide more resources and focus government attention on the issue. The WHO has considered and rejected declaring the current outbreak an international emergency several times, saying it would continue to monitor the situation.
Merck & Co.’s experimental Ebola vaccine V920 has been widely used in Democratic Republic of Congo since the August outbreak began. Between Merck’s production in Germany and now the U.S., the New Jersey-based company is projecting a supply of about 900,000 vaccines over the next six to 18 months, said Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele in an email.
Merck has donated 195,000 doses to the WHO for response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda since last year, Eisele said. The company has another 245,000 doses available for shipment.