The WHO Ebola warning is real


THERE are those who are already arguing that by declaring a “public health emergency of international concern” the World Health Organization (WHO) is over-reacting to the Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The reasoning goes that had the treat been truly serious the WHO would have called for borders to be closed to stop travelers spreading the contagion.

However, such arguments completely miss the point. So far more than 1,600 people have perished from this terrible disease which in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 led to over 11,000 deaths and brought local heath services to their knees. What almost certainly triggered this WHO declaration was that the first Ebola case has just been confirmed in a DRC city of Goma, home to more than a million people. There is a clear risk that hundreds of thousands of inhabitants will stampede in search of safety, some of them taking the contagion with them to unaffected areas.

A country that is already in chaos with brutal militias fighting shambolic and hardly less brutal government forces, is in even less of a position to combat the outbreak than West Africa five years ago. And these heavily-armed thugs have posed a direct threat to the courageous health care workers who are trying to treat the infected. So far this year there have been some 200 attacks on medical staff or Ebola treatment centers, resulting in seven deaths and 58 injuries and the plunder or destruction of key medical facilities. It can be no comfort to know that thanks to their ruthless rapacity, these criminals may well have themselves contracted the disease. If they were only going to infect each other and so wipe out their murderous own murderous bands, it might be thought a cause for rejoicing. But of course that is not the way it will work. They will carry Ebola with them to victims of their savage campaigns.

This is a deadly disease that is now clearly snow-balling. Officially there are a dozen new cases a day. But, as happened in five years ago in what as then the world’s largest Ebola outbreak, there was widespread suspicion of modern medicine. Victims feared the authorities and also preferred to place their trust in traditional healers. Therefore the rate of infection in the DRC is clearly underestimated, possibly by a large margin.

The WHO has very good reason to hit the emergency button. It has estimated it needs approaching $100 million to tackle this latest Ebola menace. This would include an inoculation campaign using a 98 percent effective serum that was developed during the West African outbreak. However, so far it is short of $54 million. Even allowing for the bloated budgets and waste of so many United Nations organizations such as the WHO, it is clear that these funds are desperately needed. The wealthy West sat up and took notice five years ago when there was a real danger that Ebola could be spread to its own citizens. But why should it take such a prospect to prompt such a vigorous response? The lives of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in the DRC and its neighboring states are at imminent risk. Why should rich nations not be as concerned for these Africans as they were for themselves?