Killed by incompetence: UN admits Ebola blunders

A passenger has his temperature checked in Paris before flying. Picture: Reuters
A passenger has his temperature checked in Paris before flying. Picture: Reuters
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THE World Health Organisation has admitted botched attempts to stop the spiralling Ebola outbreak in West Africa, blaming factors including incompetent staff and a lack of information.

In a draft internal document yesterday, the agency wrote that experts should have realised that traditional infectious disease containment methods would not work in a region with porous borders and broken health systems.

“Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall,” WHO said in the document.

The body acknowledged that, at times, even its own bureaucracy was a problem. It noted that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are “politically motivated appointments” made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Doctor Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency’s chief in Geneva, Dr Margaret Chan.

WHO is the UN’s specialised health agency, responsible for setting global health standards and co-ordinating the global ­response to disease outbreaks.

Dr Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, agreed in an interview yesterday that WHO acted far too slowly, largely because of its Africa office.

“It’s the regional office in Africa that’s the frontline,” he said at his office in London. “And they didn’t do anything. That office is really not competent.”

Dr Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also questioned why it took WHO five months and 1,000 deaths before the agency declared Ebola an ­international health emergency in August.

“I called for a state of emergency to be declared in July and for military operations to be ­deployed,” Dr Piot said.

But he said WHO might have been scarred by its experience during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, when it was slammed for hyping the situation.

In late April, during a teleconference on Ebola among infectious disease experts that included WHO officials, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, questions were raised about the performance of WHO experts, as not all of them sent Ebola reports to WHO headquarters, according to the draft document.

The document – a timeline on the Ebola outbreak – was not issued publicly. WHO officials said in an email yesterday that the timeline would now probably not be released. No official at the agency would comment yesterday on the draft report.

In the document, WHO said it was “particularly alarming” that the head of its Guinea office refused to help get visas for an expert Ebola team and that $500,000 (£310,00) in aid was blocked by administrative hurdles. Guinea, along with Sierra Leone and Liberia, is one of the hardest-hit nations in the current outbreak, with 843 deaths so far blamed on Ebola.

The outbreak has killed 4,484 people in West Africa and WHO said there could be 10,000 new cases of Ebola every week within two months, unless more and stronger measures are taken.

When MSF began warning in April that the Ebola outbreak was out of control, a dispute on social media broke out between the charity and a WHO spokesman who insisted the outbreak was under control.

At a meeting of WHO’s network of outbreak experts in June, Dr Bruce Aylward, normally in charge of polio eradication, alerted Dr Chan about the serious concerns being raised over WHO’s leadership in West Africa.

He wrote an email that some of the agency’s partners – including national health bodies and charities – believed the UN agency was “compromising rather than aiding” the response to Ebola and that “none of the news about WHO’s performance is good”.

Five days later, Dr Chan received a six-page letter from the agency’s network of experts, spelling out what they saw as severe shortcomings in WHO’s response to the deadly virus.

“This [was] the first news of this sort to reach her,” WHO said in the draft document. “She is shocked.”

Other experts said it was impossible to predict that the initial Ebola cases in Guinea would spark the biggest-ever outbreak of the lethal disease.

“There were a lot of mistakes made by WHO but a lot of the best public health minds would have thought we could handle this in July,” said Michael ­Osterholm, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota.

“By the time we realised how bad things were, the genie was already out of the bottle.”

Health crisis leaves Obama with plenty of work to do

THE American president, Barack Obama, is scrambling to rescue his national Ebola response after a string of missteps has spread panic.

He said he was open to appointing an Ebola tsar to oversee efforts to contain the virus, as criticism mounted of his administration’s handling of the outbreak.

Two nurses have contracted Ebola after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, who died from the disease in Dallas, Texas, earlier this month, one of whom may taken two commercial flights while contagious.

Amber Vinson said she was suffering from a low level fever before flying and had even asked permission from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which is spearheading the fight against the deadly disease.

Now, health workers are trying to trace passengers on the two flights she took.

The result is a growing sense of anxiety across the country that its first-world health facilities are not up to the job of containing a disease that is running rampant in West Africa.

At least six schools have closed in Texas and Ohio, where Miss Vinson visited during her wedding preparations. One school will be disinfected after it emerged that a member of staff travelled on the same plane.

In addition, there have been a string of Ebola scares. On Thursday train services were shut down around Boston after a woman vomited on a station platform, and there have been similar episodes in New York.

None has turned out to be Ebola.