WHO: ‘We botched Ebola response’

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WHO should have recognised that conventional infectious disease containment measures wouldn’t work in West Africa.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), set up in 1948, is arguably the most important global health body. It manages and responds to health crises and is responsible for many huge successes in global health. Polio has been eradicated from all but three nations largely thanks to a vaccine programme initiated by WHO. It runs huge programmes combating the threat from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

However, WHO has drawn criticism for its response in times of a health crisis such as the 2009 Swine Flu Epidemic, and now, the Ebola outbreak. In a leaked draft document, WHO admitted it failed in its response to the current Ebola crisis, allowing it to spread across west Africa.

In the document, WHO said health experts should have identified that conventional infectious disease containment methods wouldn’t work in West Africa, an area with porous borders and weak health systems.

“Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall,” WHO said in the document. “A perfect storm was brewing, ready to burst open in full force,” it said, reports the Associated Press.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, whose volunteer health workers began treating Ebola patients when the outbreak was first recognised in March, warned WHO that this outbreak was different to previous ones.

“First of all it was the first time we had a case in a big city like Conakry (capital of Guinea). It is something very different from the remote Congo jungle,” MSF’s Brice de le Vingne, director of operations in Brussels, told the Guardian. The cases were also in a triangle where three countries met. “We knew we were going to have a problem with dealing with three different administrations.”

The first cases were identified in Guinea in December 2013 and went unnoticed for several months. It was the first time Ebola had been seen in West Africa. “Nobody knew that this disease called Ebola would be possible in such parts of Africa,” Dr Isabelle Nuttall, the WHO’s Director of Global Capacities, Alert and Response told the BBC.

“The speed of reaction was initially determined by the fact that the disease was not known to occur in this part of Africa.”

WHO’s appointment system in Africa was also criticised in the leaked document. It said WHO country heads are “politically motivated appointments” made by regional director Dr Luis Sambo. In addition, Dr Sambo doesn’t answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr Margaret Chan.

WHO said it was ‘alarming’ that the head of its regional office in Guinea refused to help obtain visas for an expert Ebola team, and $500,000 of aid money was blocked.