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Updated: Fri, 08 Aug 2014 14:37:44 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Ebola outbreak is a public health emergency, WHO says



Director General of the World Health Organization, WHO, China's Margaret Chan informs to the media after an emergency meeting on Ebola during a press conference at the headquarters of the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/Associated Press

Director General of the World Health Organization, WHO, China's Margaret Chan informs to the media after an emergency meeting on Ebola during a press conference at the headquarters of the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone/Associated Press

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is an international public health emergency that demands an extraordinary response, the World Health Organization declared Friday.

The outbreak has killed at least 961 people as of Aug. 6 and "is moving faster than we can control it," WHO’s director-general Margaret Chan told reporters from Geneva.

“The possible consequences of further international spread are particularly serious in view of the virulence of the virus,” the UN health agency said in a statement.

The affected countries of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity they are facing, Chan said in urging the international community to provide support.

The decision by WHO’s emergency committee, which includes Dr. Theresa Tam from the Public Health Agency of Canada, was unanimous.

The declaration shows WHO is taking the outbreak seriously, but the statement needs to translate into action immediately on the ground, said Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors without Borders (MSF).

"For weeks, MSF has been repeating that a massive medical, epidemiological and public health response is desperately needed  to saves lives," Janssens said in an email.

"Lives are being lost because the response is too slow."

The UN health agency said all states with Ebola transmission should declare a national emergency, as Nigeria did Friday. 

Chan said while there shouldn’t be a general ban on international travel or trade, countries should be prepared to detect, investigate and manage Ebola cases.

"The likelihood is that things will get worse before they get better," added WHO’s head of health security, Keiji Fukuda.

The WHO said that efforts to contain the outbreak have been hampered by inexperience and misconceptions about the threat, such as how it spreads.

Dr. Jonathan Epstein is a veterinary epidemiologist based in New York and associate vice-president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a group of scientists researching the relationships between wildlife, ecosystems and human health to limit the spread of diseases from animals to people.

Epstein said that coupled with moves by governments in West Africa to set up quarantine areas and to continue to provide hospital services, there needs to be more effective educational outreach.

"I think something that could be effective is having people who survive infection become ambassadors to help communicate that supportive care is really important," Epstein said.

Since there are no licensed drugs or vaccines for the viral disease, patients are offered supportive care for symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea that can lead to severe dehydration.

Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at Toronto's University Health Network, welcomed WHO's recommendations to the affected countries.

"Usually Ebola virus outbreaks burn themselves out fairly quickly and they're done. This has not burned itself out. It keeps expanding and at some point, what you would have done in the past is not enough. You have to do more and that's where this declaration is very helpful in really pushing people to now drop everything and get a handle on this."

Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that the outbreak's two main drivers are lack of infection control and risky burial practices.

Earlier this week, Liberia and Sierra Leone brought in troops to enforce quarantines and to bar infected people from travelling and spreading the infection.

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