Global Health Experts Say Response To Ebola Was Full Of Failures

The World Health Organization was criticized for delayed response.

A group of 19 global health experts reviewing the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa harshly criticized how the World Health Organization and other bodies responded to the crisis.

The Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine assembled the Independent Panel on the Global Response to Ebola, which analyzed the response to the outbreak and on Sunday issued 10 reform proposals for future pandemics.

The outbreak "exposed deep inadequacies in the national and international institutions responsible for protecting the public from the far-reaching human, social, economic, and political consequences of infectious disease outbreaks," their report stated.

Panelist Ashish K. Jha, director of the HGHI, said WHO was too slow in "sounding the alarm" after the initial Ebola outbreak began.

"The most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm," he said, according to the Harvard Gazette. "People at WHO were aware that there was an Ebola outbreak that was getting out of control by spring, and yet it took until August to declare a public health emergency."

The Ebola virus has killed 11,000 people and infected 28,00 since the current outbreak in West Africa began in 2013, according to the panel's report. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were the nations most badly affected.

One section of the report pointed to "systemic weaknesses" that were exposed in the outbreak, revealing there was a "lack of capacity" to detect the virus in Guinea for several months that led it to spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"This phase underscored the problem of inadequate investments in health infrastructure, despite national governments’ formal commitments to do so under the International Health Regulations," the report read. "It also underscored inadequate arrangements between governments and WHO to share, validate, and respond robustly to information on outbreaks."

The panel's 10 reform proposals included a suggestion for a unified WHO outbreak response center that would give the agency "clear responsibility" and accountability, governed by an independent board.

The proposal also suggested a Standing Emergency Committee be set up as a transparent, politically-protected committee to "broaden responsibility for emergency declarations."

A representative from WHO told The Huffington Post via e-mail that the organization "welcomes the report" from the independent panel and is carefully reviewing the recommendations. In a statement, the agency said reforms are already underway:

"A number of its recommendations cover work that is already being done - including steps set in place by WHO in early 2015 and described by the Director General in her speech to the World Health Assembly in May. It is gratifying to see that there is consensus of thought on many of these key issues.

WHO led technically from the beginning, playing a central role in making the diagnosis and politically with the Director General travelling to the region and engaging with heads of state of all the affected countries. However, as the Organization has indicated already, there were operational problems in early 2014 and that is what the reforms at WHO are all about. We are building the capacities to do that and moving from technical/political organization to an operational one.

In the latter part of 2014 and 2015, WHO was able to rapidly deploy large numbers of staff with relevant expertise, peaking at 1300 staff on the ground in the affected countries and was the only agency with a presence in every prefecture, county and district. Over the past year there have been over 1,000 WHO staff members at any one time working in West Africa - often in difficult circumstances - working alongside many partners including [Doctors Without Borders], [International Federation of Red Cross] and other UN organizations."

The independent panel's recommendations come days after three new recent cases of Ebola were detected in Liberia. The country entered a 90-day heightened surveillance period in September when WHO declared Liberia to be Ebola-free.

HGHI did not immediately respond to The Huffington Post for comment.

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