Washington, D.C., 3 November 2014 (PAHO/WHO) -- The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) is mobilizing teams of experts in outbreak alert and response to help Member States in Latin America and the Caribbean ensure they are prepared for any potential introduction of Ebola virus disease (EVD).

PAHO/WHO missions will visit member countries over the next two months to assess countries' levels of preparedness to detect, treat and control the spread of any potential imported case of Ebola. In coordination with national health authorities, the missions will assess gaps and make recommendations for addressing them, and PAHO/WHO will provide follow-up technical cooperation based on individual countries' needs.

In addition, PAHO/WHO experts and experts from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) will be deployed if an imported case of Ebola is identified in any PAHO/WHO member country, to assist national health authorities in implementing their EVD response plans.

No cases of Ebola have been reported in Latin America or the Caribbean to date. However, "the risk of an imported case in the region is real," said Dr. Marcos Espinal, Director of PAHO/WHO's Department of Communicable Diseases and Health Analysis. "It is important that our countries' health systems be prepared to respond quickly to cases of Ebola and make sure it does not spread."

To be prepared for a potential case of Ebola, countries need to have the ability to detect a patient with symptoms. Healthcare workers must be familiar with screening criteria (symptoms and history of travel/exposure) and know when to isolate patients. They also need to know how to protect themselves from exposure to the virus in the course of their work. Health officials need to know how to prepare and send medical specimens for testing and which laboratories are able to diagnose Ebola. Ministry officials must know how and when to carry out contact tracing.

PAHO/WHO has been working closely with its member countries to ensure they have the necessary policies, procedures and human resource capacity in place to manage any introduction of Ebola. PAHO/WHO's work in this area has included a series of virtual and face-to-face training sessions on preparedness, risk communication and logistics, as well as the dissemination of norms and guidelines on infection control, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), collection and management of samples with highly pathogenic agents, disease surveillance, and laboratory procedures (for more information on PAHO guidelines visit www.paho.org/ebola).

The new PAHO/WHO preparedness missions will examine and make recommendations in the following key areas, with the goal of ensuring that country capacities are in line with recommended standards under the International Health Regulations (IHR):

Coordination mechanisms for key institutions involved detecting and responding to potential Ebola cases.

  • Epidemiological investigation, surveillance and laboratory capacity, particularly to ensure rapid identification of suspected cases, diagnostic confirmation, and contact tracing.
  • Logistics, ensuring that needed supplies are available, especially personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, and that effective mechanisms for shipping laboratory specimens are in place.
  • Communication capacity to ensure transparency and public trust in health authorities and general compliance with public health measures.

These efforts are part of the new PAHO/WHO Framework for Strengthening National Preparedness and Response for Ebola Virus Disease in the Americas, which provides the basis for the Organization's technical cooperation, response and resource mobilization for the possibility of imported Ebola in the region.

PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne also announced last week that she is appointing Dr. Ronald St. John as Ebola Incident Manager. Dr. St. John is a Canadian national who has extensive expertise in preparedness and response in the health sector, with experience in managing public health crises.

PAHO works with the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their populations. Founded in 1902, it is the world's oldest international public health organization. It serves as WHO's Regional Office for the Americas and is the specialized health agency of the Inter-American system.