More than a year after the Ebola epidemic began tearing through three of the world’s most fragile countries, the World Health Organization remains unfit to handle a public-health emergency, an independent panel concluded in a blistering report.
UNITED NATIONS — More than a year after the Ebola epidemic began tearing through three of the world’s most fragile countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) remains unfit to handle a public-health emergency, an independent panel concluded in a blistering report issued Tuesday.
“WHO does not currently possess the capacity or organizational 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.
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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 organization Oxfam, did not call for personnel changes. But it said a rapid overhaul of the organization 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. A donor conference is scheduled for Friday.