There is no way to tell when exactly the Ebola outbreak will be over in Africa, says Margaret Harris from the WHO. International organizations learned too late about the spread of the disease, she noted.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is under criticism after Doctors without Borders published a report condemning the UN agency's slow response to Ebola.
According to the organization's representative Margaret Harris, however, all international agencies were stymied when the disease struck. And, despite all claims, there is no way to tell when this outbreak of the deadly disease, which has claimed around 10,000 lives, will be over.
DW: The UN Ebola chief told British media that the outbreak would be over by August this year. Do you think that is realistic?
Margaret Harris: We don't make specific predictions. One thing we've learned from this outbreak is, every time you think it's over, another wave starts up. So it really won't be over until every one of the three countries has had no cases for 42 days. And even then, it won't be over. Even then, for the next six months, they will have to maintain a very very high level of vigilance. By that I mean, that they test everybody who's even got any suggestion that they may have symptoms of Ebola.
For a few weeks, Liberia had no cases and they were making every effort. They were looking at more than a 1,000 samples each week and have now identified another case. People may say it's very disappointing, but it shows what very good work the Liberian people are doing and that they're remaining vigilant.
What measures are the WHO and its partners taking to prevent an outbreak in the future?
Margaret Harris says one cannot make any specific predictions on when the Ebola outbreak will be over.
One of the really important things we're doing now, and will continue to do, is to work very hard with the countries affected and with other countries to strengthen their health systems.
What we mean by that is to ensure they have very well-trained people working in all parts of the country, that they have very good laboratory services, and that they have very good communication and are able to send the information about what they find to their central offices and to other parts of the world, so that when something happens, we get early warnings.
What happened with this outbreak was, it arose in a very remote part of Guinea. There were some investigations locally, but the information was not passed on to the WHO until the middle of March. We got some information that there were a cluster of cases and our epidemiologist, when he looked at the features of those cases, began to suspect that it might be Ebola, even though Ebola had never occurred in that part of the world.
At that point, he asked the laboratories that were looking at the samples to test for Ebola and, of course, the rest is history. Once those samples tested positive, we notified the world and the response began. But Ebola had been transferred not just in the remote part of Guinea, it had traveled to the capital city Conakry by that time and had also crossed borders. So, all of us came into the picture far too late.
What has the WHO's reaction been to the new report on Ebola by Doctors without Borders?
It's important for all organizations to have a self-examination process. And this is the MSF's version of that. And we too are going through all of our work. That started in January and we, as an evidence-based organization, ask others to look at our work.
This was an unprecedented outbreak. It is still going on and is still probably the greatest challenge to the health of humanity in modern times. We all need to understand what went on and what we need to do better.
How are you planning to coordinate better with partners in the future?
One other thing that we've done, which is part of the self-examination process, is that we should have a [health] force ready to go. We should have people who are experts, who have got the resources and are able to go anywhere in the world and immediately look at what's going on and to deal with it. So the idea is for us to be much better prepared and much more responsive.
Margaret Harris is part of the Media team at the World Health Organization in Geneva. This interview was conducted by Manasi Gopalakrishnan.