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WHO Says Ebola Outbreak Is Not An International Threat


The appearance of Ebola in Uganda prompted the World Health Organization to hold a special meeting today. The question before them - does the spread of Ebola beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo constitute an international health emergency?

Earlier this week, a 3-year-old boy crossed with his family from the DRC into Uganda. He's now the third member of his family to die from Ebola. Despite these new cases, the WHO decided that outbreak is not an international threat.

NPR's Jason Beaubien has been following this. Welcome to the studio, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

CORNISH: So given the cross-border spread here, why is the WHO stopping short of declaring this an international threat?

BEAUBIEN: So basically they're saying that this is an isolated incident, and it appears to be contained, and the risk of additional spread of Ebola outside of this area of the northeast of the DRC remains quite low. This is Dr. Preben Aavitsland. He's the acting chair of that emergency committee.


PREBEN AAVITSLAND: It was the view of the committee that the outbreak is a health emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region, but it does not meet all the three criteria for a public health emergency of international concern.

BEAUBIEN: So those criteria are that is has to be unusual. It has to have implications beyond the original country's borders. And there needs to be some sort of call for international response that's needed. And some public health officials have actually said that this does meet those conditions, but the WHO for now is saying that this is a D.R. Congo problem, potentially a regional problem but not a major international threat.

CORNISH: Yeah. And the story about this toddler is quite sad, the people who were affected by this. And I know Uganda's right now on high alert. They're trying to figure out if this family that came over from Congo actually exposed other people to the disease, right?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, that's correct. So this family is from Uganda. And they went to Congo to attend the funeral of a family member who was also a pastor. He had subsequently died. He died of Ebola. That's why they were going to this funeral. They somehow got infected.

And then when they tried to return home, they were identified at the border as potentially having Ebola. They were put into an isolation center there. They left that. When they got back into Uganda, one of the boys initially got sick. That's when it was identified that this was such a problem. And you know, there'd been an expectation that at some point, something like this was going to happen. Uganda shares a 500-mile-long border with the DRC.

Today, Uganda's health minister, Jane Ruth Aceng - she said that potentially this could be out there. She told people to stop shaking hands, stop touching each other. And she said if you're feeling sick, get to a hospital or a clinic immediately.


JANE RUTH ACENG: The earlier you are detected and supportive treatment instituted, the more your chance is of survival. If you're discovered late, the chances of survival are minimal.

BEAUBIEN: Currently Uganda is monitoring nearly a hundred people who had some form of contact with that family. And tomorrow Uganda is starting a new mass vaccination campaign for potentially thousands of people.

CORNISH: In the Democratic Republic of Congo, are they making any progress against the disease?

BEAUBIEN: Well, things are better than they were a few months ago, which was at a level that was just awful. Health care workers were getting attacked. They were burning down treatment centers. The violence does seem to have eased off a bit.

There were weeks when Congo was recording 120 new cases of Ebola a week. Last week it was down to 58. But the fatality ratio has been incredibly high. Like, 2 out of 3 people who are confirmed with this are getting sick. And so even 58 cases - you know, those are grandmothers, pastors and babies like in this family. So while things are getting better, the WHO says this outbreak is not under control. It remains a significant regional threat. And the WHO says they need more resources to combat it.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. Thank you for your reporting.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.