Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was wise to reconvene the emergency committee for the third time to review the Ebola epidemic in the DRC. Previous committees did not declare a PHEIC.
The emergency committee should have recommended declaring the epidemic in the DRC a PHEIC. It is now time for bold action. The international community has lacked any sense of urgency, essentially allowing WHO's Health Emergency Department and a few nongovernmental organizations to fight the Ebola battle in the DRC. This has come with enormous risk to life and safety for first responders.
The cross-border spread of Ebola to Uganda was a pivotal event. The criteria for a PHEIC have been met for many months. The legal criteria for a global emergency do not require international spread but only a high risk, which has been crystal clear for a long while. But now WHO can no longer fail to raise a global alarm. Not only is Uganda now identifying confirmed and suspected cases, but also there is a risk of spread to other border countries like Rwanda, along with the entire region. If the DRC epidemic is not contained soon, it could spread to regions around the world, including North America and Europe.
We have been trying to quell a dangerous epidemic using the same public health game plan that has worked in the past. But it isn't working now, and it won't. Standard strategies like case identification, vaccination and treatment can’t succeed in a complex humanitarian crisis like the situation in the DRC. Responders in the field are facing intense violence, along with deep community mistrust. They can’t get into the hot zone because of escalating violence, and they can’t find cases to vaccinate and treat because families are hiding the sick. There has been no clear strategy to break the vicious circle of disease, violence and distrust.
It seems WHO hasn’t called an emergency because it fears repercussions in the form of travel restrictions. They also believe a PHEIC provides them with no additional power or resources. But the status quo is no longer tenable. It is time to sound a global alert.
WHO needs to mobilize resources and political will. During the West African Ebola epidemic, President Obama secured a $1 billion emergency appropriation, led a U.N. Security Council resolution and deployed the military in a noncombat role. Other countries like France and the United Kingdom followed the lead set by the U.S. None of that has happened yet, quite the opposite because the Trump Administration has banned the CDC from the hot zone. There is a major funding deficit for the response. There is a shortage of vaccines. This is all crippling the response.
So what do we need? We need a sense of international urgency, mobilizing resources and deploying experienced personnel. We need smart diplomacy from the U.S. State Department and U.N. to ameliorate the violence. We need a bottom-up social engagement of the community.
There has to be a secured “safety zone” for health personnel to enter villages to identify cases and vaccinate those at risk. U.N. peacekeepers, with the mission and training explicitly to protect health personnel and work with local communities, should maintain safety.
Until we galvanize international support and we change the playbook, we can expect the DRC epidemic to either spin out of control or, more likely, we will have a steady drumbeat of needless suffering and death for the next year, maybe much longer.
For each day that passes, precious lives are lost, including brave health care workers. Were it not for a highly effective vaccine, the DRC epidemic could easily have been as severe as the one in West Africa. Since West Africa, and with a new Director-General, WHO has transformed itself. This is a pivotal moment for the future of WHO. Declaring an emergency would have been the first crucial step. Much work to be done to fight this epidemic with a sense of urgency and purpose.
Lawrence O. Gostin, JD
Professor, Georgetown Law
Director, O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health
Disclosures: Gostin reports no relevant financial disclosures.