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Updated: Fri, 08 Aug 2014 06:28:49 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ebola outbreak: WHO declares international public health emergency



Keiji Fukuda, World Health Organization's (© WHO)

Keiji Fukuda, World Health Organization's (WHO) assistant director general for health security, addresses the media after a two-day meeting of its emergency committee on Ebola, in Geneva August 8, 2014. West Africa's raging epidemic of Ebola virus is an "extraordinary event" and now constitutes an international health risk, the WHO said on Friday. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy (SWITZERLAND - Tags: HEALTH POLITICS) - RTR41NU5 Pierre Albouy/Reuters

The World Health Organization on Friday declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be an international public health emergency that requires an extraordinary response to stop its spread.

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The WHO announced the Ebola outbreak — the largest and longest in history — is worrying enough to merit being declared an international health emergency. WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and for polio in May.

The WHO chief, Dr. Margaret Chan, said the announcement is "a clear call for international solidarity" but acknowledged that many countries would probably not have any Ebola cases.

"Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own," Chan said at a news conference in Geneva. "I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible."

The agency had convened an expert committee this week to assess the severity of the ongoing epidemic.

Impact of declaration unclear

The current outbreak of Ebola began in Guinea in March and has since spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. There is no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola and the death rate has been about 50 per cent.

"The likelihood is that things will get worse before they get better," Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's head of health security, told reporters. "We are fully prepared for the outbreak to be at a high level for a number of months."

The impact of the WHO declaration is unclear; the declaration about polio doesn't yet seem to have slowed the spread of virus. During a WHO meeting last week to reconsider the status of polio, experts noted countries hadn't yet fully applied the recommendations made in May, there have been more instances of international spread and that outbreaks have worsened in Pakistan and Cameroon.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already elevated their Ebola response to the highest level and has recommended against traveling to West Africa. On Thursday, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told a Congressional hearing that the current outbreak is set to sicken more people than all previous outbreaks of the disease combined.

"I don't know what the advantage is of declaring an international emergency," said Dr. David Heymann, who directed WHO's response to the SARS outbreak and is now a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"This could bring in more foreign aid but we don't know that yet," he said.

U.S. diplomats' families to leave Liberia

The United States on Thursday ordered families of its diplomats in Liberia to leave and warned against non-essential travel to the West African country.

A State Department statement said U.S. staff would remain on active duty at the embassy and additional staff were being sent to help the government tackle the outbreak of the deadly virus.

"The latest wave of the outbreak has overwhelmed Liberia's health system and most health facilities lack sufficient staff or resources to address the continuing transmission" of the disease, it said.

Extra U.S. personnel going to Monrovia include 12 disease prevention specialists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a 13-member disaster assistance response team from USAID to help the government fight the outbreak, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf announced a state of emergency on Wednesday effective for 90 days that allows the government to curtail civil rights and deploy troops and police to impose quarantines on badly affected communities.

The epidemic has also hit Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria and has claimed more than 900 lives, according to the World Health Organization.

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