The Ebola outbreak in West Africa won't be stopped until front-line health workers get more support, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said Friday at a news conference in Geneva.
After a unanimous vote by a committee of public health and risk management experts, the WHO decided to declare the outbreak an international public health emergency.
The outbreak is an international issue, Chan said. Stopping the outbreak — and limiting its spread — will require cooperation and coordination from countries around the world, not just those affected or nearby.
The declaration is a "a clear call for international solidarity," Chan said. But it "by no means implies that all countries, or that many countries, will see Ebola cases," she added.
So far, there have been more than 1,700 cases of Ebola and 900 deaths since the outbreak reached international attention in March.
Almost all cases have been in three nations: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. And the virus is moving faster than efforts to stop it in these countries, Chan said. The shortage of health care workers is one of the main reasons why.
"The three countries that are most affected by Ebola disease are countries that have very weak health system capacity," she said. They don't have enough doctors, nurses or even basic equipment, such as gloves and protective suits.
Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva and vomit. So protective equipment is essential for stopping the virus' chain of transmission.
Fear and denial are also major obstacles to stopping the virus's spread, Chan said. Many people in the region still doubt that the virus is real. Others are too frightened to take sick relatives to clinics or report their deaths. Even some governments were initially in denial about the outbreak, Chan said.
"While Ebola is infectious," said the WHO's assistant director-general, Keiji Fukada, "it can be stopped."
The WHO is not recommending any travel or trade bans to any countries, despite the fact that a sick man spread Ebola to Nigeria a few weeks ago through air travel.
Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American businessman, flew to Nigeria's capital, Lagos, and collapsed in the airport. Before he died at a Lagos hospital, Sawyer had spread the virus to several people. Now the country has recorded nine cases.
The risk of spreading Ebola through flights is minimal, Chan says. And shutting down travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia would severely hurt their economies, she added.
The WHO is meeting next week to discuss the possible use of experimental drugs in the outbreak. There are no treatments approved for Ebola. But a few medicines are being developed.
Two American aid workers received one of these experimental drugs, called ZMapp, in Liberia last month after they fell ill. They are the only known people to be treated with the drug. And the decision to give it to them has sparked a fierce debate around why these treatments weren't tried earlier or with African patients.
"The problem is that these drugs are not approved for widespread use," Fukada said. "And they are available in only very small quantities," he added.
This raises a host of questions, he said, including who should get the drug and whether testing unproven therapies is ethical in these situations.
"In the past, the Ebola outbreaks have been relatively small and isolated," Fukada said. "It has not been enough to lead to the development of vaccines and medicines."