The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo a "public health emergency of international concern," a rare designation only used for the gravest epidemics.
"It is time for the world to take notice," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement, as he accepted the advice of his advisory board to invoke the emergency provision (PHEIC), only used by the UN health agency four times previously.
Those included the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic of 2009, the spread of poliovirus in 2014, the Ebola epidemic that devastated parts of West Africa from 2014 to 2016 and the surge of the Zika virus in 2016.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it "welcomed" the decision.
"While it does not change the reality on the ground for victims or partners engaged in the response, we hope it will bring the international attention that this crisis deserves," the IFRC said in a statement.
The WHO's international health regulations, drafted in 2005, say that the international emergency label should apply to a situation that is "serious, unusual or unexpected; carries implications for public health beyond the affected State's national border; and may require immediate international action".
More than 1,600 people have died from Ebola since August 1, when the haemorrhagic virus erupted in DR Congo's North Kivu and spread to neighbouring Ituri.
This announcement comes just days after the epidemic for the first time spread to Goma, a major urban town and home to more than one million people.
The United Nations health agency, however, stressed that no country should close its borders or place any restrictions on travel or trade, adding that the risk of the disease spreading outside the region was not high.
“We need to work together in solidarity with the DRC to end this outbreak and build a better health system,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.
Sitting on Wednesday, the emergency committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost two million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world.
“It is important that the world follows these recommendations. It is also crucial that states do not use the PHEIC as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response and on the lives and livelihoods of people in the region,” said Professor Robert Steffen, chair of the Emergency Committee.
Dr Ghebreyesus this week said the case in Goma was a potential game-changer, since it meant Ebola might now spread among the urban population and into neighbouring Rwanda.
A separate WHO report cited a very high risk for Uganda’s Arua district, which borders a Congolese area where an Ebola patient died after having had contact with over 200 people.
This was the fourth meeting of the Emergency Committee since the outbreak was declared on 1 August 2018. With the porosity of our borders, allowing the free movement of people across the EA countries.
Since 2014, the world has grappled with the worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa. More recently, the continent has further faced other disease outbreaks such as Yellow Fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cholera in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.
It is estimated that the Ebola outbreak not only led to loss of over 10,000 lives, but also tested the capacity and readiness of affected countries’ ability to respond to outbreaks.
The outbreak has since 2018 been classified as a level 3 emergency – the most serious – by WHO, triggering the highest level of mobilization from WHO. The UN has also activated the humanitarian system-wide scale-up to support the Ebola response.
The current outbreak of the highly infectious disease has been all but confined to Congo, killing 1,673 people there - more than two-thirds of those who contracted it - over the past year, and three in Uganda last month.
It took 224 days for the number of cases to reach 1,000, but just a further 71 days to reach 2,000. About 12 new cases are being reported every day.
Kenya has been on high alert and even increased surveillance for Ebola after a patient died in neighbouring Uganda while being treated for the disease in June.
The heightened surveillance comes into effect following an outbreak in neighbouring Uganda where three people have so far been found to have the disease which has already killed one.
Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Uganda where three people have so far been found to have the disease which has already killed one comes at a time when Kenya, and other East African countries have been tightening the bolts on disease surveillance as the country readies itself for any eventuality.
Last month, Kenya and Tanzania have been simultaneously carrying out a Field Simulation Exercise to test the region’s health system to respond to similar outbreaks.
A Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) declaration would be just the fifth in WHO history and include recommendations for international action. It could also help unlock sorely needed funds.
Last month the committee decided the potential disruption of declaring one risked causing economic harm while achieving nothing.
The declaration will help DRC and neighbouring countries like Kenya in combating the spread of the disease.