WHO declares Ebola outbreak no longer global health emergency
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, MD, has downgraded the Ebola situation in West Africa, saying today that it no longer constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.
Chan made the announcement after the Ebola emergency committee heard updates from the three countries hardest hit by the worst outbreak of the disease in history and determined that, although there have been recent flare-ups, the risk for international spread is low.
All three countries — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — have reported interrupting the original chain of virus transmission, the committee said.
“We have come a long way,” Robert Steffen, committee vice chairman, of the University of Zurich, said during a telebriefing. “The tremendous efforts made in the three most affected countries, with great contributions by the international community, have brought the outbreak to an end. But complacency at this stage would be completely wrong.”
Indeed, cases of Ebola persist in West Africa. This month WHO confirmed the first new cases in Guinea since the country was declared free of transmission in December. The new cases were confirmed the same day WHO declared the end of the latest Ebola flare-up in Sierra Leone.
Although new clusters of Ebola continue to emerge — most associated with survivors who transmit the virus through semen — they are occurring at decreasing frequency, the committee said. There have been 12 to date, and only the one in Guinea is ongoing.
“We know that little clusters will continue to flare up,” Steffen said. “That will be normal life.”
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa began in Guinea in December 2013 and killed more than 11,300 people — most of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In order to confirm that the original chains of the virus had been interrupted, the countries were required to complete a 42-day observational period and an additional 90-day enhanced surveillance period since their last case linked to the original chain of transmission had twice tested negative. Guinea was the last to meet this criteria, reaching the milestone on March 27, according to the committee.
While the public health emergency has ended, Chan said a high level of vigilance and response capacity must be maintained to ensure that the countries can prevent future infections and flare-ups. WHO has kept hundreds of experts on the ground in the three countries to support local efforts, Chan said.
“We can congratulate the three countries for maintaining vigilance and showing no signs of complacency during recent flare-ups,” she said.
Based on the committee’s recommendation, Chan lifted the restrictions on trade and travel with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone that were implemented in response to the outbreak in 2014. – by Gerard Gallagher