The world is on high alert after the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency Committee met late last week and declared the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa an “extraordinary event” and a threat to all countries across the world.

WHO’s Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan told the press: “I am declaring the current outbreak of the Ebola virus disease a public health emergency of international concern.” According to the statistics released last week, there have been at least 961 deaths and 1,779 suspected cases.

Chan made it clear that although the virus has the potential to spread, they were not implying that it would – “The declaration of a public health emergency of international concern alerts the world to the need for high vigilance for possible cases of Ebola virus disease, but by no means implies that all countries or even many countries will see Ebola cases. Only a small part of the African continent is currently affected.” The countries to which she was referring are Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

It seems that the warning has already sunk in; today local press in Canada and India have reported that each country is monitoring a male patient as a precautionary measure. The patient in Toronto flew in from Nigeria and had Ebola-like symptoms, but the one in Chennai, who arrived from Guinea, currently has no symptoms.

While there is no vaccine or specific treatment for the virus yet, things are looking hopeful on both fronts. WHO announced yesterday that a vaccine could be available in 2015. The British pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline has apparently already developed the drug and clinical trials are due to begin in September. Last week two American health workers who contracted the disease in West Africa were given an experimental treatment called Zmapp, which had previously only been tested on monkeys.

Although there have been many questions raised about why this treatment was only given to US citizens and not rolled out in Africa, WHO has issued a statement saying: “The recent treatment of two health workers from Samaritan’s Purse with experimental medicine has raised questions about whether medicine that has never been tested and shown to be safe in people should be used in the outbreak and, given the extremely limited amount of medicine available, if it is used, who should receive it. The guiding principle with use of any new medicine is ‘do no harm’. Safety is always the main concern.” They will be convening a panel of medical ethicists early this week to discuss the matter further.

But perhaps the most important issue at this stage is getting the international community to help the embattled health workers in West Africa in order to prevent further deaths. WHO’s statement clearly highlights the ‘fragile’ health systems with insufficient experience, workers, finances and material resources as well as lack of awareness and misconceptions about the disease as the major contributors to this health emergency.

As Chan emphasised, “Above all the committee’s conclusions and my decisions are a clear call for international solidarity. Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own.”

Here’s all you need to know about Ebola, including symptoms


Image: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection