Absorbing the Lessons of WHO's Ebola Response

An expert panel's report finds WHO does not possess the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public response.

An assessment panel's report in July 2015 offered a sobering analysis of the World Health Organization's response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which at press time continued in Guinea. WHO reported 11,235 people have died of the disease as of June 28, 2015.

The panel concluded that Member States have for the most part failed to implement core capacities, particularly for infectious disease surveillance and data gathering, that are required by the International Health Regulations, and that by instituting travel bans and other measures not called for by WHO, nearly one-quarter of the Member States helped to cause a significant delay in the declaration of the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by WHO. "The Panel considers this situation, in which the global community does not take seriously its obligations under the International Health Regulations (2005)—a legally binding document—to be untenable," the report's executive summary states.

The six panelists (one was Dr. Julio Frenk, M.D., MPH, Ph.D., who served as dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from Jan. 1, 2009 to Aug. 15, 2015) worked fast, meeting for the first time at the end of March 2015 and delivering this report scarcely three months later. They had visited the three most affected countries and met with many organizations involved in the Ebola response.

The report concludes WHO "should be the lead emergency response agency" but adds, "The Panel considers that WHO does not currently possess the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public response" and lacks sufficient dedicated funding to fulfill that mission.

WHO responded to the report by thanking the panelists and endorsing their recommendations, which included creating a contingency fund to ensure funding is available for an initial response and also establishing an intermediate level of alert in order to sound the alarm earlier than can be done with a full Public Health Emergency of International Concern declaration.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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