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Ebola outbreak: Global health authority warns spread of disease is now 'an international crisis'

As the deadly virus continues its unprecedented spread through West Africa, the global health authority has issued a stark warning

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared West Africa’s Ebola outbreak an international health emergency, and called for global “solidarity” in the fight to stop the spread of the virus which has now claimed close to a thousand lives.

States of emergency have already been declared in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the number of Ebola cases continues to rise. Margaret Chan, director general of WHO, said that there was still potential for further international spread, and warned that the countries affected did not have the capacity to manage the outbreak alone.

It is only the third time that WHO has declared a public health emergency of international concern, a high level of threat previously applied to the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak in 2008, and the ongoing polio outbreak in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

According to the latest WHO figures, released yesterday, 961 people had been killed in the current Ebola outbreak, which is by far the worst since the virus was first identified in the 1970s. In a small sign that progress might be being made, WHO said that on 5 and 6 August there had been no new cases of Ebola in Guinea, where the outbreak began in February.

However, there were 68 new cases across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the latest country to see transmission of the virus, and many experts remain deeply pessimistic about the prospects for an early end to the outbreak.

British expert Dr Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, said that it was unlikely the virus could be stopped completely until “after Christmas”. However, he said the declaration of an international emergency was “a big forward step” in the fight against the disease. “This will make the vast resources of the United Nations such as funds, experts and equipment available to help stop Ebola,” he said.

In the affected countries, there are still signs that public health messages aimed at preventing the spread of the virus are not getting through to many communities, and suspicion of health workers and of isolation centres where Ebola patients are treated remains high.

The new ritual of handwashing in Monrovia (EPA)

WHO will decide next week whether to use experimental medicines in the fight against Ebola. The plan comes after an experimental treatment used on two American aid workers infected by Ebola reportedly helped improve their condition. There has been anger among many in the affected countries that the serum, known as ZMapp, will not be available in African countries, but the US Centers for Disease Control says there is hardly any stock and that its efficacy is still in doubt. Even if it were deployed, it would be three to four months before even modest amounts could be manufactured, experts said.

A Spanish priest who became the first person infected with Ebola to be treated in Europe, after being flown into Spain earlier this week, was said to be in a stable condition yesterday.

There has been criticism of the international response to the crisis, which has only gained momentum in recent days. Dr Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, which has 66 international and 610 national staff working in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, said that it had been warning for weeks that “a massive medical, epidemiological and public health response is desperately needed”.