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World Health Organization declares Ebola public health emergency

On Aug. 8, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern." The statement sets in motion a number of steps to enable a coordinated response from the international community. It also provides the affected countries a series of steps to undertake to prevent the spread of the disease.

Map showing the extent of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa through August 4, 2014.
Map showing the extent of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa through August 4, 2014.
CDC / public domain

Recommendations from the WHO contained with the declaration address three sets of member states. For the four nations with active Ebola outbreaks, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the list begins with a declaration of national emergency and the opening of an emergency operations center to control the response to the disease.

Nations bordering outbreak nations or states with potential Ebola cases are to increase surveillance, educate health care workers on the signs and symptoms of the illness and prepare to react aggressively to any outbreak. Testing labs should be identified before any cases are found. Hospitalization and isolation procedures need to be put into place.

All other nations should be on alert for travelers with potential Ebola illnesses, though a ban on travel to the affected nations is not suggested. Health care workers and the general public should receive education about the illness. Preparation for the evacuation of citizens exposed to Ebola from the affected states is also recommended.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) testified before a Congressional committee on Aug. 7 about the Ebola crisis and the CDC response. In his opening statement, Frieden stated:

We do not view Ebola as a significant danger to the United States because it is not transmitted easily, does not spread from people who are not ill, and because cultural norms that contribute to the spread of the disease in Africa – such as burial customs – are not a factor in the United States. We know how to stop Ebola with strict infection control practices which are already in widespread use in American hospitals, and by stopping it at the source in Africa.

Through Aug. 4, the CDC reports 1,711 Ebola illnesses and 932 deaths from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The agency has initiated a Level 1 activation of its emergency operations center. A Level 3 travel notice is in place for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea advising Americans that there be no unnecessary travel to those nations. A Level 2 notice is in effect for Nigeria, advising travelers to that nation to avoid contact with Ebola patients.

The AP is reporting that the U.S. State Department ordered the evacuation of all embassy dependents from Liberia on Aug. 7. The closure of several hospitals due to the Ebola outbreak and the uncertainty of obtaining health care was the given reason.