Ebola update: WHO declares epidemic an "international heath emergency"

With three major humanitarian crises in addition to the Ebola outbreak, the WHO is stretched thin

Published August 8, 2014 2:07PM (EDT)

Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions                                                         (Public Library of Science)
Scanning electron microscopic image of Ebola virions (Public Library of Science)

The World Health Organization has now declared West Africa's Ebola epidemic an international health emergency as the number of Ebola victims has risen yet again, with new figures from the WHO having the death toll at 961 and total cases at 1,779 as of Wednesday. "A coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop and reverse the international spread of Ebola," said the WHO in a statement on Friday. Still, the WHO stressed that the disease could be stopped. "This is not a mysterious disease," said Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's head of health security. "This is an infectious disease that can be contained. It is not a virus that is spread through the air."

In a press conference this morning, WHO director-general Margaret Chan emphasized how thinly the organization's resources are spread. Science's Martin Enserink notes: "With three major humanitarian crises on its hands -- in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic -- as well as three important disease outbreaks -- Ebola, the H7N9 influenza virus, and MERS -- WHO is 'extremely stretched,' she said."

David Heymann, director of the Chatham House Centre on Global Health Security and former WHO official, noted that three major measures known to stop Ebola outbreaks (hospital infection control, community understanding of risk of infection and contact tracing) "appear not to have been robustly enough applied," and more governmental involvement should have occurred in the early stages of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, a hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, is largely abandoned as potential patients have begun to view the building itself as a death trap. "Don't touch the walls!" a medical technician yells in a haunting piece by the New York Times' Adam Nossiter. "Totally infected."

And more:

  • The United States has ordered families of its diplomats in Liberia to leave the country.
  • At a congressional meeting on Thursday, the U.S. and global responses to the epidemic were harshly criticized.
  • The debate continues: Who should get the experimental drug ZMapp?
  • Asia is on alert using thermal imaging cameras and having doctors monitoring incoming flights to screen sick travelers.

By Joanna Rothkopf

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Ebola Update West Africa Who