A group of experts criticized the World Health's Organization reaction to the Ebola outbreak in a recent report, writing: "Ebola exposed WHO as unable to meet its responsibility for responding to such situations and alerting the global community."
The findings were presented by a panel assembled by the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Panelist and HGHI director Ashish Jha said in a statement that "the most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm." Jha added, "people at WHO were aware that there was an Ebola outbreak that was getting out of control by spring…and it took until August to declare a public health emergency…Those were precious months."
The authors also discuss just how devastating the outbreak was:
The west African Ebola epidemic that began in 2013 was a human tragedy that exposed a global community altogether unprepared to help some of the world’s poorest countries control a lethal outbreak of infectious disease… The outbreak continues as of November, 2015. It has infected more than 28,000 people and claimed more than 11,000 lives, brought national health systems to a halt, rolled back hard-won social and economic gains in a region recovering from civil wars, sparked worldwide panic, and cost several billion dollars in short-term control efforts and economic losses.
The report accused WHO of, among other things, a lackluster response to the crisis: "WHO’s Global Alert and Response Network sent an expert team to support national efforts, as did others such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, those teams withdrew from Guinea and Liberia in May when reported cases decreased, even as viral transmission continued," and failing to effectively combat virus later on:
WHO’s incountry technical capacity was weak, shown by its decision to withdraw its international team too soon and its poor responses in Guinea and Sierra Leone to requests for technical guidance from ministries of health and health-care providers. Third, WHO did not mobilise global assistance in countering the epidemic despite ample evidence the outbreak had overwhelmed national and non-governmental capacities—failures in both technical judgment and political leadership.
The criticism is harsh, especially in light of the fear that Ebola could return in apparently cured patients. Margaret Ann Harris, a spokesperson for WHO, told the BBC that "this is an important report, it provides a lot of good recommendations, some of which we're actually already putting in place, others which will need a lot more study."
She did, however, defend WHO on one point:
One of the things I would like to correct is this confusion around the public health emergency of international concern. This is something that's declared under the international health regulations. This is not the declaration of an emergency. We said back in March 2014 that we had a very serious situation. We did alert the world, as did our colleagues in MSF. Sadly the world really wasn't interested until well into September when it arrived in Europe.
The public health emergency of international concern is not the same thing as working operationally in an emergency. The public health emergency of international concern is something set up under the international health regulations to talk about whether travel and trade restrictions should be imposed. Now one of the problems is once we declared it in fact a lot of airlines stopped flying to those regions and a lot of countries went well beyond our recommendations and imposed restrictions on those countries.
Not a great reflection on how the Western world reacts to crises in developing nations.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.