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Experts: Changes Needed in Fight Against Disease Outbreaks

Residents of a West African village watch as members of a response team disinfect an area as they pick up suspected Ebola patients that had been quarantined, Sept. 30, 2014.

An international panel of experts is sharply critical of the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that began two years ago. The experts are recommending changes to improve the national and international response to the next outbreak of disease.

The panel concluded that neither Guinea, nor Liberia, nor Sierra Leone had the resources to prevent or contain the Ebola epidemic, and that the international response was inadequate.

Study Director Suerie Moon of Harvard University says scientists and health workers did not have the latest information on how the epidemic was spreading, among other problems.

Suerie Moon - Courtesy: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Suerie Moon - Courtesy: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

“There were deep inadequacies in the arrangements for sharing information, for example, on how fast the virus was spreading in real time,” she said in a telephone interview. “There were deep inadequacies in the investments for drugs, vaccines, [and] rapid diagnostic tests, before Ebola became the big emergency that it did last year.”

The experts’ recommendations include increased resources to identify and treat patients, incentives to promote early reporting of outbreaks, standards and procedures for sharing information about the extent of an epidemic and the best ways of treating the disease.

Need to ‘change the game’

One-third of the recommendations focused on improvements in the international public health system. For example: getting the United Nations Security Council involved in health issues and a narrower, more focused mission for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Moon said the WHO, which has a unique role in global public health, is “too often subject to government interference” by countries where outbreaks occur. The epidemic in West Africa has lessons for the response to the next disease outbreak.

“Ebola absolutely should change the game,” Moon said. “The catastrophe that it was, and the extent of human suffering and the worldwide panic that we saw during Ebola was of such a magnitude that I don’t think political leaders have any excuse not to drive through some of these very important reforms. Because if not now, then when?”

Suerie Moon is the first author of a paper recommending changes in the response to disease outbreaks. The independent review, which was chaired by Peter Piot of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is published in the British medical journal, The Lancet.