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WHO Declines To Declare Ebola Outbreak A Public Health Emergency

Jun 17, 2019
Originally published on June 17, 2019 9:02 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Uganda, two people infected with the Ebola virus have died, a young boy and his grandmother. Medics in Uganda say they don't have the supplies they need to fight this outbreak. The virus spread to Uganda last week from the Democratic Republic of Congo next-door. Fourteen hundred people in Congo have died, but the World Health Organization hasn't declared this a public health emergency. If the WHO did, it would free up money and resources. Deborah Malac is the U.S. ambassador to Uganda. She's joining us via Skype. Good morning, Ambassador.

DEBORAH MALAC: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So the WHO says it's not a public health emergency yet. Are they right to hold off in that way?

MALAC: Well, obviously, they have access to information that we ourselves may not have here in Uganda. Clearly, they are watching this very closely, as we have been doing here in Uganda, watching what's happening just across our border, hoping that it won't spread. For the moment, though, I think from the Uganda side, we feel fairly comfortable that the government here is well-placed to respond, as they did last week to the cases that came in and any future cases.

KING: And that's despite the fact that medics there say they need more supplies, they don't have what they need.

MALAC: Well, again, we have a very long and porous border with eastern Congo. So knowing exactly where cases may come across is always a difficult thing to know. But we, the U.S. government, as well as WHO and other partners, have been working very assiduously with the government of Uganda over the last 11 months while this outbreak has been going on in eastern Congo to help build their capacity. Supplies are always a challenge in terms of supply chain, moving things where they need to go. But we feel fairly comfortable that the ability to respond and respond quickly exists here in Uganda.

KING: You mentioned this long and porous border. So the first case in Uganda was this 5-year-old boy who reportedly went to Congo, got the virus there then came back to Uganda with his grandmother, and they both passed. How are the borders being handled? Is security being stepped up?

MALAC: Since the outbreak in DRC in August of last year, we have worked, along with other partners, with the government of Uganda, to establish screening along the border posts.

KING: OK.

MALAC: Now, obviously, this is at formal border crossings. We are also looking to how we can help the government do screening at some of these informal border crossings. But I would argue that the system actually worked reasonably well in this case last week and that these - they reentered Uganda in order to seek health care. They were identified at a hospital because the boy was sick and transferred almost - and transferred rather quickly to the Ebola treatment unit awaiting confirmatory testing. So the surveillance systems are there. They just - and so we just need to make sure they continue to work.

KING: This is not your first experience with Ebola. You were the U.S. ambassador in Liberia during the outbreak there. Do you see differences in this case that either worry you or make you optimistic?

MALAC: Certainly, from the Ugandan perspective - from being in Uganda now versus where we were in Liberia, we feel very optimistic.

KING: That's terrific news. That was U.S. ambassador to Uganda Deborah Malac. Thanks so much.

MALAC: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.