WHO is condemned over Ebola response

Failings by the World Health Organisation (WHO) played a key role in the Ebola disaster, according to new report.

A WHO team training health workers in Liberia in October. Picture: Getty
A WHO team training health workers in Liberia in October. Picture: Getty

An independent panel of 20 experts, led by a top British scientist, called for sweeping reforms to ensure there is no repeat of the catastrophe – which claimed more than 11,000 lives.

They were especially critical of the WHO, the United Nations body set up in 1948 to lead the global fight against disease and ill health.

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The biggest mistake that contributed to the scale of the epidemic was said to be the WHO’s failure to act quickly when early signs of the outbreak emerged in 2014.

Professor Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute in the US, who co-chaired the panel, said: “The most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm.

“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 cost of the delay was enormous.”

The Ebola epidemic began in December 2013 with the first infections in a remote region of Guinea where no previous outbreaks had been reported.

The report said that even when the epidemic entered its 
second phase, in March, the WHO failed to mobilise global assistance “despite ample evidence the outbreak had overwhelmed national and non-governmental capacities”. This highlighted “failures in both technical judgment and political leadership”.

A third phase began in July as numbers of cases soared and alarm spread around the world. The World Bank committed 200 million US dollars (£131.19 million) to the growing crisis and dozens of countries, companies and universities began to impose travel restrictions.

Yet it was not until 8 August that the director-general of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, officially designated the Ebola outbreak an international public emergency.

The report, published in The Lancet medical journal, called for ten major reforms aimed at preventing and responding to future major disease outbreaks.

Chairman Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “We need to strengthen core capacities in all countries to detect, report and respond rapidly to small outbreaks, in order to prevent them from becoming large-scale emergencies.”