GENEVA: The World Health Organization Friday declared the killer Ebola epidemic that is ravaging parts of West Africa was an international health emergency and appealed for global aid to help afflicted countries.
The decision came after a rare meeting of the U.N. health body’s emergency committee, which urged screening of all people flying out of affected countries, where nearly 1,000 people have died.
The WHO stopped short of calling for global travel restrictions, urging airlines to take strict precautions but to continue flying to the West African countries hit by the outbreak.
And it called on countries around the globe to be prepared to “detect, investigate and manage” Ebola cases if they should arise.
WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan appealed for greater help for those worst hit by the “largest, most severe and most complex outbreak in the nearly four-decade history of this disease.”
“I am declaring the current outbreak a public health emergency of international concern,” Chan said, warning of the “serious and unusual nature of the outbreak and the potential for further international spread.”
States of emergency have been declared in the hardest-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, while two people have died in Nigeria and Benin is investigating a suspect patient.
In the first European case, Spain is treating an elderly priest who contracted the disease while helping patients in Liberia.
U.S. health authorities have also said the symptoms of Ebola would “inevitably” spread beyond West Africa, and medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has warned the tropical virus is “out of control.”
Defining the epidemic a public health emergency of international concern – a label only used twice before, during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and the reemergence of polio last May – “alerts the world to the need for high vigilance,” Chan said.
MSF head of operations Bart Janssens hailed the move, but said there needed to be immediate action on the ground.
“Lives are being lost because the response is too slow,” he said.
Chan said only a small part of Africa had been affected so there was little reason to fear that all countries would see Ebola cases.
Ebola had by Wednesday claimed at least 961 lives and infected nearly 1,800 people since breaking out in Guinea earlier this year, with 29 people dying in just two days, the WHO said.
“The likelihood is that it will get worse before it gets better,” WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said. The outbreak is expected to last for months.
In Liberia, soldiers in Grand Cape Mount province – one of the worst-affected areas – have set up road blocks to limit travel to the capital Monrovia, as bodies reportedly lay unburied in the streets.
In Sierra Leone, which has the most confirmed infections, 800 troops were sent to guard hospitals treating Ebola patients and two eastern towns were put under quarantine.
In Nigeria, which so far has seen two dead and five others infected, doctors suspended a nearly five-week strike to help prevent the virus from taking hold.
As African nations struggled with the scale of the epidemic, the scientists who discovered the virus in 1976 have called for an experimental drug being used on two infected Americans to also be made available for African victims.
The two Americans, who worked for aid agencies in Liberia, have shown signs of improvement since being given ZMapp, made by U.S. company Mapp Pharmaceuticals.
U.S. regulators have meanwhile loosened restrictions on another experimental drug, which may allow it to be tried on infected patients in Africa.
Ebola causes severe fever and, in the worst cases, unstoppable bleeding. It is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids, and people who live with or care for patients are most at risk.
Fatality rates can approach 90 percent, but the latest outbreak has killed around 55-60 percent of those infected.
The earlier the virus is discovered, the better the chances are of survival.
Although Ebola cases could easily appear far beyond the epicenter of the crisis due to the nature of global air travel, Fukuda told AFP that large outbreaks further afield were unlikely. “If you have health systems, you have awareness, you are ready for it, this is something that you can stop,” he said.
The scope of the current outbreak can largely be attributed to the dismal state of the health systems in the affected countries, which have far too few doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians and equipment.
Charity Save the Children warned that people with the virus, particularly children, were slipping through the cracks.
“This outbreak really underscores the importance of having strong health systems,” Fukuda said.