Should the WHO be solely responsible for the Ebola situation in West Africa?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) received harsh criticism from a health panel consisting of the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on the 19th of November, over its actions in containing the outbreak and spread of the Ebola virus throughout West Africa. According to them, the organization failed to handle the situation properly because of the delay in spreading awareness about the disease instead of as soon as it became apparent in March that it could not be controlled.

Ashish K. Jha, the Director of the Harvard Institute, stated that the time it took to declare a health emergency by the WHO was a costly mistake. In addition to this, the panel stated that the body’s inaction is largely responsible for the “immense human suffering, fear and chaos” that took place in the region.

The panel, which is focused on reforming the way infectious diseases are managed around the world, released its report a day after three new cases of Ebola were discovered in Liberia – a country the WHO had announced to be Ebola-free in September. According to Jha, cases of outbreaks, reviews and the aftermath highlight the world’s inability to assimilate important lessons in disease epidemics and this needs to change, especially in honour of the lives that were lost to the disease in West Africa.

Dr. Margaret Harris, the spokeswoman on Ebola for the WHO responded to the panel’s criticism by stating that their report, which outlines ten recommendations for the general management of infectious diseases, would receive the necessary consideration, along with those provided by other similar health groups.

Last year, Richard Brennan, the director of the WHO’s department of Emergency risk Management and Humanitarian Response disclosed that although the organisation could have responded quicker to the outbreak, a number of unexpected developments occurred after and these contributed to their tragic delay in response time. In addition to this, the organisation was largely constrained by budget cuts and the loss of valuable staff, amidst other internal struggles.

In their defense, the WHO’s first response to the outbreak of the deadly virus on March 23, 2014, was the deployment of technical experts and logisticians to the affected areas. Between that time and March this year, about 2,013 trained individuals were present in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal. Their activities within that year accounted for their biggest emergency operation in history. The organisation, however, was not to follow up on the matter until the 8th of August, when they declared an international emergency. They then joined in the construction of treatment units and began providing medical teams in the region.

Meanwhile, the organisation, Doctors Without Borders, was already on the scene attending to emergencies in Gueckedou, Guinea where the disease sprung from. They had been in Guinea since 2011 working on HIV/AIDS and Malaria projects.

As at September 2014, the WHO was yet to boast of a coordinated response to the situation and hope for urgent containment faded with each passing day as more lives were lost. By January, the following year, it was determined that the poor health systems and a lack of basic infrastructure in the affected countries – among other shortcomings –  also presented a challenge in tackling the outbreak of Ebola in its early stages.

Also, community engagement, combined intervention efforts and adequate vigilance were encouraged to support the fight against the spread of the disease.

Sierra Leone was declared free of the virus on the 7th of November, but is now on a 90-day surveillance that would end in February 2016. According to the organisation, the current situation in Liberia highlights the importance of surveillance when it comes to combating the Ebola virus. Therefore, there is a need to improve upon this tactic as part of the joint efforts that can be made towards total elimination of the disease.

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