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Ebola outbreak in Congo is deemed health emergency

[NEW YORK] The year-old Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo is now considered a global health emergency, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday, in a formal declaration many public health experts called long overdue.

"This is still a regional emergency and by no way a global threat," said Robert Steffen of the University of Zurich, chairman of the WHO emergency committee that recommended the declaration.

But the panel was persuaded by several factors that have made combating the epidemic more urgent in recent weeks: The disease reached Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people; the outbreak has raged for a year; the virus has flared again in spots where it had once been contained; and the epidemic hot zone has geographically expanded in northeastern Congo near Rwanda and into Uganda.

Officials are also dismayed by the persistence of the epidemic even with the extensive use of a successful vaccine.

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This was the fourth time the WHO had considered whether to declare a global health emergency in the Congo outbreak. It stopped short the first three times, even though some aid agencies and public health officials had called on the organisation to do so in hopes such an order would elicit more funds and recruit more health workers to the region.

But government officials have repeatedly expressed competing concerns about interrupting trade or restricting travel, which Mr Steffen emphasised should not result from the emergency status issued Wednesday.

Emergency declarations are issued sparingly. Only four such declarations have been made in the past.

The Congo outbreak began a year ago, with the first cases confirmed in August. As of Monday, the disease had infected 2,512 people and killed 1,676 of them.

The decision Wednesday was based on a vote by 11 members of an expert panel convened by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, to reassess the current outbreak after an infected man carried the virus to the city of Goma, a transportation hub close to Rwanda that has an international airport. That patient has died.

The WHO said it had received US$49 million from international donors from February to July, only half the money it needs. Officials who have visited the region say supplies are running short, including the protective gear health workers need to avoid becoming infected.

NYTIMES