The year-old Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now considered a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday, in a formal declaration that many public health experts called long overdue.
Emergency declarations are issued sparingly, reserved for outbreaks that pose a serious threat to public health and could spread to other countries. They are meant to increase international attention and aid to help stop epidemics.
As of Monday, the Congo outbreak had infected 2,512 people and killed 1,676 of them. The disease has defied efforts to control its spread in the northeastern part of the country, a conflict zone under constant threat from warring militias. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, the director-general of the W.H.O., has described the outbreak as one of the world’s most dangerous viruses in one of the world’s most dangerous areas.
It is the second largest outbreak in history after the one in West Africa in 2014-15, which infected 28,616 people and caused 11,310 deaths. That epidemic was declared a global emergency.
The decision on Wednesday was based on a vote by 11 members of an expert panel convened by Dr. Tedros to reassess the current outbreak after an infected man carried the virus to the city of Goma, a densely populated transportation hub close to Rwanda that has an international airport. That patient has died.
Wednesday was the fourth time that Dr. Tedros convened the expert panel to consider whether the outbreak met the criteria for a “public health emergency of international concern.” The first three times, the panel said no, drawing sharp criticism from many specialists in public health.
Global health groups had been calling for the declaration for months. Josie Golding of the Wellcome Trust, a research charity based in London, said the response in Congo was “overstretched and underfunded.” Giving the outbreak emergency status, she added, would “help raise international support and release more resources — including finance, health care workers, enhanced logistics, security and infrastructure.”
The W.H.O. said it had received $49 million from international donors from February to July, only half the money it needs. Officials who have visited the region say supplies are running short, including the protective gear that health workers need to avoid becoming infected. At a United Nations meeting about the outbreak on Monday, one official said he had seen syringes and gloves being reused because equipment was becoming scarce.
The man who brought the disease to Goma was a pastor who had preached in seven churches in the epidemic zone, laying hands on the sick. He became ill and was treated by a nurse, but got on a bus to Goma anyway. The bus stopped at three checkpoints meant to halt the spread of the disease by screening passengers for symptoms, but his illness was not detected. He gave a different name at each checkpoint, apparently hoping to avoid being detained, local health authorities said. Sick and feverish by the time he arrived in Goma, he went to a clinic there, where the disease was diagnosed.
He was the only patient in the Goma clinic, which was disinfected after his visit. Health authorities have been tracking the 18 other bus passengers and the driver, as well as others who might have been exposed to the disease by the pastor, and providing vaccinations.