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WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.

FILE - Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.

The World Health Organization has admitted it was too slow in tackling the Ebola crisis in West Africa, leading to the epidemic spiraling out of control.

Health experts from around the world are debating measures to reform the agency’s response to global public health emergencies in a special one-day session on Ebola.

The WHO continues to be criticized for slow response and ignoring warnings from organizations such as Doctors Without Borders about the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan admitted to delegates attending the special Ebola session her agency did not respond as vigorously as it should have.

“The world, including WHO, was too slow to see what was unfolding before us. Ebola is a tragedy that has taught the world, including WHO, many lessons also about how to prevent similar events in the future. ... Never again should the world be caught by surprise, unprepared,” Chan said.

The WHO said Ebola has claimed more than 8,600 lives and infected more than 21,700 people, mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

This deadly virus circulated for three months before it was diagnosed in late March 2014 in Guinea. By then, West Africa was being ravaged by the worst, most complex Ebola outbreak in history.

Survivors stigmatized

Sierra Leone nurse Rebecca Johnson, an Ebola survivor, understands the horrors inflicted by the disease. She said early treatment saved her life, and after three weeks she was given a certificate noting she was Ebola-free.

“However, many people do treat me as if I have Ebola. I was stigmatized, and [I am] still stigmatized by people in my community. I sometimes seek out quiet places and cry," Johnson said.

"My final message for people out there is this, 'Even though there is no certain cure for Ebola, early treatment is your best chance at survival,' " she said.

U.N. Special Envoy on Ebola David Nabarro said the U.N. system must be prepared to respond quickly and basic public health techniques must be adopted.

“My experience to date tells me that for responses to have the greatest chance of success, they must be strategic, strong and speedy. They must be based on pre-arranged roles and responsibilities and they must use already established systems," Nabarro said.

"It is really difficult to establish new ways of working from scratch in the middle of an emergency and we found that to our cost, I think, in this latest outbreak,” he said.

Nabarro said local communities must be at the center of response to a health emergency, national authorities in charge of this response and coordination is vital to international efforts to get on top of a pandemic.

The WHO said the Ebola outbreak highlights the need to rebuild and strengthen national and international emergency preparedness and response.

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