(USA TODAY)- The World Health Organization on Friday declared the Ebola outbreak that is spreading across West Africa to be a "public health emergency of international concern." The group also said Ebola took an additional 29 lives between Tuesday and Wednesday alone.
WHO chief Margaret Chan said the announcement is "a clear call for international solidarity" but also said many countries would probably not see any Ebola cases.
"Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own," Chan said. "I urge the international community to provide support on the most urgent basis possible."
Chan spoke to journalists at a news conference in Geneva after experts had spent two days discussing the epidemic.
The WHO declared similar emergencies for the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and polio in May.
The impact of the WHO declaration is unclear; the declaration about polio doesn't yet seem to have slowed the spread of virus.
"Statements won't save lives," said Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. "For weeks, (we) have been repeating that a massive medical, epidemiological and public health response is desperately needed. ... Lives are being lost because the response is too slow."
"I don't know what the advantage is of declaring an international emergency," added Dr. David Heymann, who directed WHO's response to the SARS outbreak and is now a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
"This could bring in more foreign aid but we don't know that yet," he said. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already recommends against traveling to West Africa. The agency has also put U.S. hospitals on alert for symptoms to spot potential cases as quickly as possible.Two Americans infected with Ebola recently received a drug never before tested in people and seem to be improving slightly, according to the charity they work for.
Based on new numbers from WHO released Friday, the Ebola outbreak — the largest and longest in history — has now killed 961 people and sickened 1,779 others. It's on track to sicken more than all of the previous outbreaks combined.
There is currently no licensed vaccine or treatment for Ebola, although experimental drugs are being explored after two American medical missionaries infected with the virus appeared to show signs of improvement after taking new medications.
About 54% of people who have been infected in this latest outbreak have died.
The epidemic has affected Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The outbreak was first reported in March.
The WHO made a number of recommendations Friday for countries looking to stop transmission of the disease, for states with potential cases and for states that are not currently affected but are seeking to reduce the risk of exposure.
One of the recommendations is that there "should be no general ban on international travel or trade" to the affected nations. However, the WHO also said the "general public should be provided with accurate and relevant information on the Ebola outbreak and measures to reduce" exposure.
"States should be prepared to facilitate the evacuation and repatriation of nationals (e.g. health workers) who have been exposed to Ebola," the WHO said.