Calling Goma Ebola confirmation a potential “game changer,” Tedros says he will reconvene WHO emergency committee

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Citing the confirmation of a man sick with Ebola in Goma, a Democratic Republic of Congo city of 2 million near neighboring Rwanda’s border, and the continuing impacts of violence and political instability on efforts to control the spread of the virus, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ended a speech before a Geneva meeting addressing the ongoing outbreak saying he would reconvene the emergency committee that has three times declined to declare the crisis a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The discovery of the virus in a Goma man came, according to the DRC Ministry of Health, after the Congolese pastor had visited seven churches in Butembo (a DRC city where 255 cases have been confirmed) “where he regularly laid hands on Christians,” before traveling by bus, already ill, through three health checkpoints to Goma, where he sought medical care.

The confirmation of his illness, in a city Tedros called “a gateway to the region and the world,” was one of what the WHO leader called “two very sad developments” in the outbreak over the weekend. The other, he said, was the murder of two outbreak responders in Beni, a DRC city where 463 Ebola cases have been confirmed.

The two events together demonstrating the continued emergence of the virus in new places in the face of continuing obstacles to control posed by violence, Tedros called the outbreak “one of the most complex humanitarian emergencies any of us have ever faced.” He noted that experts have pointed to ways that the nearly yearlong outbreak has presented “a more complicated” array of challenges than those confronted during the 2013-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa, where international neglect gave the spread of disease a running start across three countries where the virus had never been seen, and where years of political instability had left weakened health systems and deep community distrust.

“Now it’s time for the international community to redouble its efforts,” Tedros said, reiterating a call that has been made following each meeting of an emergency committee weighing the threats posed by the epidemic. Still a funding gap, for both responses to the DRC outbreak, and preparedness in as yet unaffected DRC areas and neighboring nations, continues.

Even in the face of that gap, and amidst ongoing violent conflict, the DRC health ministry and Tedros emphasized the effectiveness of preparedness efforts that they said led to swift identification of the virus, and of the pastor’s fellow bus passengers. Without a greatly expanded response however, Tedros said, new outbreaks will remain inevitable while other preventable diseases continue to take lives. While nearly 2,500 people have been confirmed to be sick with Ebola since the current outbreak began in August, and 1,665 have died from the virus, close to 2,000 children have died in a measles outbreak in the DRC since January, Tedros noted.

“Frankly,” he said, “I am embarrassed to talk only about Ebola.”

His remarks came on a day a WHO-released report showed that due to “conflict, inequality and complacency,” one in ten children worldwide did not receive essential vaccinations against measles, diphtheria and tetanus last year. That shortfall, in turn, has fueled a resurgence of measles in outbreaks across the United States, 19 years after the disease was considered eliminated here.

Echoing a similar call from former Obama administration Ebola response coordinator Ronald Klain and infectious diseases expert and responder Dr. Daniel Lucey that was published in the Washington Post Friday (and cited here), Tedros said expanding efforts to ensure the DRC’s health system has the capacities to address Ebola and other illnesses will be essential to gaining community trust during this outbreak and stopping future ones.

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