An independent panel of experts on Tuesday harshly criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for its handling of the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
“At present, WHO does not have the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response,” the panel wrote in the 28-page report.
The experts — led by Dame Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of Oxfam — identified bureaucracy and politics as the root cause of the poorly managed response.
“There seems to have been a hope that the crisis could be managed by good diplomacy rather than by scaling up emergency action,” the panel wrote.
Inaction Fuels Ebola Outbreak
The first cases of Ebola in the current outbreak appeared in December 2013, but the WHO did not declare a public health emergency until August 2014. By then, almost 1,000 people had died of the virus.
According to the panel’s report, the WHO’s inability to react quickly, and proactively, contributed to the continued outbreak, which to date has killed more than 6,000 people.
Early warnings were raised by WHO staff about the seriousness of the Ebola situation, but “either these did not reach senior leaders or senior leaders did not recognize their significance,” the report stated.
The panel did, however, commend WHO for helping to fast-track the development and testing of new vaccines and experimental therapies for Ebola, although they did not fully exercise this option until August 2014.
Report Calls for Emergency Response Division
In spite of the inadequate response of the WHO during the Ebola crisis, the panel said that the organization should continue to lead the response to future health emergencies, whether it’s another Ebola outbreak or the spread of a pandemic flu.
To ensure the success of future efforts, the report recommended the WHO establish a “Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response.” This would represent a shift from the WHO as simply providing guidelines for emergency responses.
“One of the issues here is that until now the whole idea of an emergency response agency hasn’t really been fully taken on,” said Stocking in a press conference, “and that’s what has to happen because when you’re in an emergency, you operate in a very different way.”
The new division would be based on the WHO’s separate humanitarian and outbreak areas, but a “simple merger will not suffice — it will need new organizational structures and procedures.”
This new division would be supported, in part, by voluntary donations of $100 million by member countries.
In a published response, WHO officials said they are already moving forward with some of the panel’s recommendations, including setting up a special fund for emergency health responses and developing a coordinated workforce for handling future health crises.
The report urged the WHO to move forward quickly with these changes. Previous recommendations suggested by the review committee in 2011, in response to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, were never enacted.
Had they been, “the global community would have been in a far better position to face the Ebola crisis,” the panel said. “The world simply cannot afford another period of inaction until the next health crisis.”