United Nations: More than a year after the Ebola epidemic began tearing through three of the world’s most fragile countries, the World Health Organisation remains unfit to handle a public health emergency, an independent panel concluded in a blistering report issued on Tuesday.
“WHO does not currently possess the capacity or organisational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response,” the panel said in its report.
While the agency itself has acknowledged the need for change, the panel added, “It will need to be held accountable to ensure that this transformation is achieved.”
The panel faulted the agency for being sluggish, financially unprepared and overly reliant on “good diplomacy.” It pointed to a lack of “independent and courageous decision making by the director general,” Dr Margaret Chan, in the early days of the Ebola epidemic.
The report urged the agency’s regional and country representatives to be independent and ready to speak out against recalcitrant governments that do not take sufficient action on their own. And it faulted donor countries for stripping the agency’s funding, urging them to contribute immediately to a “contingency fund” designed to respond to disease outbreaks.
The panel, led by Dame Barbara Stocking, the former head of the aid organisation Oxfam, did not call for personnel changes. But it said a rapid overhaul of the organisation was needed.
It said that WHO leaders should have declared the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency much sooner than they did and that the delay stemmed in part from not wanting to challenge governments worried about negative economic and trade consequences. The WHO declared Ebola a global health emergency only in August 2014, after the virus had already killed 1,000 people.
“There seems to have been a hope that the crisis could be managed by good diplomacy rather than by scaling up emergency action,” the 28-page report said.
Ebola has killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. To rebuild the health systems of the three countries over the next two years, the WHO estimates that it needs more than $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion). A donor conference is scheduled for Friday.
The WHO said that it welcomed the report and had already begun to make some of the recommended changes, including the creation of “a global health emergency workforce and the contingency fund to ensure the necessary resources are available to mount an initial response.”
Chan has previously conceded that she waited too long to declare Ebola a public health emergency of international concern.
Dr. Joanne Liu, president of the international arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres, the medical aid group that rang the alarm on Ebola much earlier than the WHO, wondered aloud about the tangible impact of the panel’s report.
“The question is how will this translate into real action on the ground in future outbreaks?” she posted on Twitter.