In a controversial decision, the World Health Organization (WHO) has again decided not to declare Africa’s latest Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 1400 people and just crossed into a new country, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It was the view of the committee that the outbreak is a health emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and the region, but it does not meet all [the PHEIC] criteria,” Preben Aavitsland, acting chair of an expert committee convened by WHO, said at a press conference on Friday evening in Geneva, Switzerland.
The committee gathered for the third time after news emerged this week that the virus had spread from the DRC to neighboring Uganda, so far killing two people there—a 5-year-old boy and his grandmother—who had crossed the border. Many infectious disease experts and public officials had expected, and called for, WHO to declare a PHEIC when Ebola broke out of the DRC. “I’m baffled and deeply troubled by this decision,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells ScienceInsider. “The status quo is no longer tenable. It is time to sound a global alert.”
Gostin and others say declaring a PHEIC would focus global attention on the ongoing health crisis. More than 2400 people have been sickened since the outbreak started in August 2018—the largest outbreak of Ebola other than when it ravaged West Africa 5 years ago. “If I look back to a similar time in West Africa in 2014, prime ministers and presidents were talking about Ebola,” says infectious disease researcher Jeremy Farrar, who runs the Wellcome Trust in London. “Frankly, that has not happened in this outbreak.”