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WHO wants reform after Ebola shortfalls

Charles Duguid Penfold
January 25, 2015

The head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, has called for reform amid criticism of the body's response to the Ebola crisis. She warned against complacency despite progress in fighting the epidemic.

A baby receives a vaccine during a routine doctor's visit at the Kuntorloh Community Health Centre in the outskirts of Freetown on November 14, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images
Image: , Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Chan told a rare emergency session of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva on Sunday that it had been too sluggish in responding to the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa, saying the agency should learn from its mistakes.

"This was West Africa's first experience with the virus and it delivered some horrific shocks and surprises," she said.

"The world, including WHO, was too slow to see what was unfolding before us," Chan admitted, adding that "never again should the world be caught by surprise, unprepared."

Chan went on to say that although the "worst-case scenario" had been avoided and progress in fighting the disease was evident in the three worst-hit countries - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - the world should not let down its guard.

"Cases are clearly declining in all three countries, but we must maintain the momentum and guard against complacency and donor fatigue," she said, warning that cases of the disease could easily surge if bodies were buried unsafely or communities violently resisted attempts at disease prevention.

Zero target

She added that the WHO aimed to reduce the number of Ebola cases in the three countries this year "to zero," while admitting this was "not going to be easy."

In her speech, Chan called for a "dedicated contingency fund to support rapid responses to outbreaks and emergencies" and for help to be given to countries so they can maintain their own highly trained teams to react quickly to emergencies.

WHO director Dr. Margaret Chan. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy (
Chan said the Ebola crisis taught many lessonsImage: Reuters/P. Albouy

She also demanded better international coordination and surveillance and improved crisis management within WHO itself.

The director of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Frieden, also pointed out failings in the WHO reponse to the outbreak, calling for "significant changes."

"We have to be frank that too many times the technical is over-ruled by the political in WHO. We have to reverse that. It must be technical, from the selection of regional directors to the establishment of rapid response," he told the meeting.

African dissatisfaction

Sunday's meeting of the WHO executive board was called by several member states critical of the United Nations agency's slow response.

"Countries in the African region feel that building WHO's capacity to respond to emergencies must be a priority activity," said Liberia's deputy health minister Dr. Bernice Dahn, saying the Africa region had "been disappointed by slow progress."

The recent outbreak of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever transmitted by body fluids, has left at least 8,641 people dead over the past year or so, most of them in West Africa, according to WHO estimates.

tj/bw (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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