WHO warns it's running out of money to fight Ebola

WHO warns it's running out of money to fight Ebola
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The largest force against the yearlong outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in Congo says it only has enough money for the fight to last through the end of the month.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday that it has received about $55 million from governments around the world since Aug. 1, just one-fifth of the amount it needs to implement a strategic response plan meant to contain the virus through the end of the year.

“Currently available funds will close the financing gap up until the end of September 2019,” WHO said in its weekly report on the outbreak. “Further resources are needed to fund the response through to December 2019, and WHO is appealing to donors to provide generous support.”

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So far, the outbreak has infected at least 3,113 people across three eastern provinces in Congo, according to the country’s health ministry and the WHO. At least 2,077 of those victims have died, though the numbers are likely higher because some families care for victims at home rather than seeking treatment at a medical facility.

The virus has disproportionately struck women in the region, who are more likely to care for sick family members or prepare dead bodies for funeral services, putting them at greater risk. Of the identified cases, 56 percent have been women. A little under a third of the cases, 29 percent, have been children under the age of 18.

The WHO has spent more than a quarter of a billion dollars battling what has become the second-largest outbreak in modern history, and the largest ever to strike Congo. Donor nations and philanthropies have contributed about $170 million of that total, including $20 million directly from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

USAID said last week it had spent a total of $158 million helping Congo fight the outbreak, both through WHO funding and through regional preparedness efforts in neighboring countries.

The World Bank last month released $30 million more from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility in the days after the WHO declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, its highest warning level.

The WHO, which has 671 trained staffers on the ground in Congo, is the largest of dozens of international groups such as UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders that have tried to contain the spread of Ebola. 

But an unstable security situation in the region, where dozens of armed militant groups operate with impunity and where more than 200 attacks on health care facilities and workers have been recorded, has kept many more groups on the sidelines.

Army snipers now guard some of the Ebola treatment units throughout the region. WHO officials travel in armored cars with armed escorts.

“The outlook of the outbreak remains fragile due to the volatile context of the response,” the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program said in a statement.

There are some positive signs that the outbreak might finally be coming under control. Just 40 new confirmed cases were reported in the last week, the lowest number of cases since March. 

Public health officials warned that it remains too soon to tell whether the downward trends are momentary blips or the result of real progress. As of last week, more than 14,000 people were being monitored for signs of the virus, a practice known as contact tracing — keeping track of those who have come into contact with someone who has contracted the virus, those who are most likely to be infected themselves.

Congolese health officials and those from neighboring countries are on high alert to prevent the virus from spreading across international borders. Those officials are screening tens of thousands of people who regularly travel into South Sudan, Uganda and Burundi, countries that neighbor the North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces.

More than 217,000 people have been inoculated against the Ebola virus, using a vaccine that has proven effective so far.