After refusing to call an international health emergency three times before, WHO’s expert committee said the outbreak in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-deadliest in history, merited a global response.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said it supported the WHO announcement, adding its voice to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) who said their officials would "continue to scale up life-saving support".
More than 1,600 people have died since August, primarily in the eastern Congo, an area where armed rebel movement has hindered the response.
The announcement was declared after an infected pastor traveling from the hot zone in the northeast, went south to Goma, where he died. Goma is a major transit hub in a city of well over one million people.
Governments fear that an international declaration, while bringing more aid, would cause major disruptions in trade and traffic in the region, possibly resulting in border closures.
WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while the risk in the region remains, the possibility of it spreading outside is low.
This declaration "should not be used to stigmatize or penalize the very people who are most in need of our help," said Tedros, adding that this was not part of an effort to try and raise “hundreds of millions of dollars”, which will be needed to stop Ebola.
A public health emergency of international concern is not for fundraising, it’s for preventing the spread of disease. @WHO is not aware of any donor that has withheld funding because the emergency had not been declared. But if that was the excuse, it can no longer be used.Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) July 17, 2019
Ebola could have gone to Rwanda
The declaration, which some have criticized as late in coming, was announced just as the WHO said on Thursday that a female Congolese fishmonger who was infected with Ebola may have gone to Uganda and back with a stop in Rwanda.
The Ugandan Health Ministry also confirmed this report. She vomited numerous times at a Ugandan market on 11 July before dying in DRC.
"Upon leaving Uganda, she is suspected to have gone to Goma in DRC and later to Gisenyi in Rwanda with unknown business interests," according to the report.
Rwanda has never had Ebola.
WHO had come under fire for not declaring an international emergency during the world’s worst Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014-2016. The current outbreak of the deadly hemorrhagic fever has not been stopped in 11 months.
Doctors Without Borders chief Dr Joanne Liu said that she hoped this meant that a more effective response could be mounted against the disease.
"The reality check is that a year into the epidemic, it's still not under control, and we are not where we should be," said Liu.
"We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect different results," she said, adding that more people need to be vaccinated against the disease and greater trust should be built in communities.
One of the first people to survive this eastern Congo outbreak is health worker Dr Maurice Kakule, who addressed the WHO committee meeting in Geneva. He had been treating a patient last July when he came down with Ebola, even before the epidemic was declared.
"What is clear is that Ebola is an emergency because the epidemic persists despite every possible effort to educate people," he said.
Ebola has a 50/50 survival rate. The virus, transmitted from animals to humans, can spread through contact with blood, bodily fluids, secretions or organs of an infected person.
Although more than 160,000 people in North Kivu and Ituri have been vaccinated, the current rebel movements and mistrust of health workers in the communities have made vaccination drives extremely difficult.
The WHO emergency committee will re-evaluate the situation in three months, to either add to the response, or determine if it is no longer an international emergency.