Congo’s Ebola Outbreak Declared Global Health Emergency As Virus Hits Major City

The virus has spread from rural villages to Goma, a city of two million people.

People await medical treatment in the outpatient lounge of an African medical clinic
John Moore / Getty Images

The virus has spread from rural villages to Goma, a city of two million people.

The year-long Ebola outbreak in Congo has now officially been declared an international emergency, in light of the fact that the disease has now moved from remote, rural villages and into Goma, a city of about two million people.

As The Associated Press reports, more than 1,600 people have died of Ebola since August, when the current outbreak began. Making matters exponentially worse is the fact that the region is a literal war zone, with armed militias spreading rumors and misinformation, and in some cases preventing health-care workers for doing their jobs.

What’s more, it’s reached a city that sits on an international border, which means that the virus could very well jump out of Congo and into Rwanda. Further, Goma has an international airport, which means the virus could very well leave Africa.

That prompted the World Heath Organization (WHO), at a meeting in Geneva, to declare the situation an international health emergency. This is the fifth time the agency has issued such a declaration.

That means, hopefully, that international attention will be brought to the burgeoning crisis. It’s also feared that it may spark frightened governments to issue travel bans and border closures. Already, the virus has been reported in Uganda, although as of this writing it does not appear to have spread within the neighboring country.

Alexandra Phelan, a global health expert at Georgetown University Law Center, says that she hopes that the emergency declaration will bring desperately-needed international aid, including health-care workers and medical supplies, to the region. She hopes it does not lead to the opposite: of countries imposing harsh restrictions that would actually prevent the flow of aid into the region. Further, other countries may view such restrictions as punitive, and may be reluctant to report their own Ebola outbreaks to international health agencies, worsening the problem.

Congo’s health ministry had lobbied vigorously against such a declaration. In a tweet, the Congo government called the declaration “reckless.” ”

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Calling for a (global emergency) to raise funds while ignoring the negative consequences for (Congo) is reckless,” the tweet said.

The Ebola virus is fatal in about 50 percent of the people it infects, and the disease is gruesome in the way it kills its victims; through vomiting, diarrhea, and uncontrollable fever, according to the WHO. Fortunately, the disease is relatively easy to contain; it’s spread through direct contact with blood, semen, and other bodily fluids, and universal precautions, such as are used in just about every hospital in the West, can prevent its spread.

However, in Africa, misinformation, rumors, and outright falsehoods about the disease and its spread, combined with cultural burial practices that involve contact with the exposed bodies of the dead, lead to its spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.