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New Africa Regional Chief Aims to Shake Up Maligned WHO Office

Boys stand in the "red zone" where they are being treated for Ebola at the Bong County Ebola treatment unit about 160 miles east of Monrovia, Liberia, in this Oct. 28, 2014, file photo.

With the international Ebola effort in high gear and some experts saying new cases may be plateauing, the new head of the maligned African division for the World Health Organization has vowed to make her office more responsive to emerging threats.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, a 35-year veteran of public health and native of Botswana, takes over from Luis Gomes Sambo, who was reportedly accused of botching the agency’s initial response to the epidemic.

An internal review cited by The Associated Press in October described the WHO’s Africa division as being weak, and hamstrung by politically motivated appointments.

“I do recognize that the challenges are great and that they would have been considerable even if we had not had this Ebola outbreak, which has turned out to be such a tragedy in West Africa,” Moeti told VOA in an interview this week.

Moeti, who was approved for the position Tuesday, said one of her first orders of business will be to restructure and organize the size of the response teams and their skills. The teams must be able to react quickly and appropriately to emergencies as they arise, she said.

She said it was crucial to help the three countries worst hit by the epidemic — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — to build robust health care systems so they can withstand future shocks.

According the U.N. agency, more than 8,800 people have died of the deadly disease.

Sambo has not responded to requests for comment on the criticism.

In a statement, Dr. Peter Piot, one of the discoverers of the Ebola virus and vocal critic of the WHO response to the disease, praised Moeti’s appointment.

“The Ebola crisis has highlighted the urgent need for strengthened WHO capacity in Africa,” said Piot, who heads the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, where Moeti graduated from. "I believe that Dr. Moeti is a public health leader who can transform WHO’s Regional Office into the type of institution Africa and the world need."