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WHO Denies It Delayed Declaration of Ebola Epidemic

FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The World Health Organization is vigorously denying accusations that it delayed declaring the Ebola epidemic in West Africa an international public health emergency for political reasons.

An article by the Associated Press said secretly obtained e-mails of internal documents indicated the WHO was afraid that declaring a global emergency could set off alarm bells, which could hurt countries’ economies or interfere with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

WHO's spokeswoman on Ebola, Margaret Harris, told VOA that the assertion was categorically untrue.

“There was no secrecy. The minute we were informed of the cases and the minute we had confirmation that it was Ebola-Zaire, we notified the world. ... It is not correct to say that the timing of the declaration of the Public Health Emergency of International Concern was in any way influenced by political considerations,” she said.

Authors of the article said the delay in making the announcement may have cost lives. By the time WHO declared Ebola a global health emergency in early August, more than four months after the announcement of the discovery of the virus in Guinea on March 23, nearly 1,000 people had died from the disease.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the largest ever recorded. Over the past year, WHO has said, there have been more than 24,700 cases, including more than 10,200 deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

The WHO said it had treated the three countries as one country because they shared porous borders, facilitating the spread of Ebola among them. It said it refrained from sounding a global alert as long as the epidemic was confined to the three countries.

Harris said this policy changed when a Liberian man who was sick with Ebola flew to Nigeria at the end of July and subsequently infected many others. She said it was this event that finally triggered the WHO declaration of a global health emergency.

In retrospect, she said, it appears that more action — not just from WHO, but from the entire world — would have been better.

"Had action occurred earlier, perhaps we would have seen a greater control of the outbreak earlier, as we are now seeing much more effective response," Harris said. "We are getting closer to ending the outbreak in these countries.”

Harris said it was pointless to play the “blame game.” She noted that WHO has set up an independent review to evaluate the agency’s response to the Ebola outbreak. When that is completed, she said, WHO will have a better sense of what worked well, what didn't and what needs to be changed.