While the world’s attention is turned toward addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, several cases of Ebola virus have recently re-emerged in Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The World Health Organization (WHO) must be ready to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) if the outbreak starts to accelerate.
The number of possible and confirmed cases currently stands at 18 in Guinea and 11 in the DRC – these flare-ups come on the heels of bigger Ebola epidemics in both countries in 2013-2016 and 2018-2020, respectively. During the prior outbreaks 2,543 people died of Ebola in Guinea and 2,299 in the DRC. With the recent reports that the outbreak in Guinea was likely caused by the re-emergence of the virus in a person who had survived Ebola five years ago, there is an urgent need for stepped-up virological surveillance.
“From the very recent experience with COVID-19, we know that delays in responding to an emerging epidemic or pandemic result in a cascade of harmful events impacting the public health sector, economies and social interactions, which too often lead to preventable loss of life,” said Dr. Jorge Saavedra, Executive Director of the AHF Global Public Health Institute at the University of Miami. “To avoid the risk of the current outbreak escalating to the levels of the previous Ebola epidemics, WHO should be ready to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern if the ongoing efforts fail to contain Ebola cases in the two clusters in Guinea and the DRC. Resources, including vaccines, personal protective equipment and adequate personnel must be staged in the region and be ready to respond before this outbreak has a chance to turn into another wildfire.”
Under provisions of International Health Regulations 2005, if WHO declares a PHEIC, states have a legal obligation to work with the global health body on timely surveillance, communications and outbreak containment measures. In essence, such a declaration is a red flag to the rest of the world, indicating the danger of an outbreak proliferating globally and the need to urgently prepare to respond to it.
“We have unfortunately been down this road far too many times, and if we’ve learned anything across the African continent and numerous outbreaks, it’s that failing to prepare and allocate the necessary resources in a prudent manner can result in tragic and unnecessary deaths,” said AHF Africa Bureau Chief Dr. Penninah Iutung. “The WHO, which has mistakenly delayed past declarations, must stand ready to declare a PHEIC for the current outbreaks, as they can become out of control in the blink of an eye. Logistical preparations should also be currently ongoing to ensure frontline health workers have everything they need to adequately contain and stamp out Ebola to safeguard Guinea and DRC citizens, neighboring countries, and the entire global community.”
Previously, Ebola-related PHEIC declarations were promulgated during the 2013-2016 outbreak in West Africa, and the 2018-2020 Kivu outbreak in the DRC. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been declared a PHEIC, albeit after a delay of nearly a month when the number of cases around the world had reached 9,800 – and 200 people had died.