Panel criticizes WHO's response to Ebola crisis

Agency let bureaucracy, politics slow its response, say critics

By David Ferguson

A review panel slammed the World Health Organization's (WHO) response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak in western Africa, accusing the global health watchdog of letting politics, an inflexible command structure and bureaucratic obstacles slow its response to the burgeoning crisis.

The report--which was released Tuesday--angered some in the global health community by not singling out specific personnel for reprimand, but rather criticized the organization without taking punitive action, according to the Associated Press.

"We didn't go into it saying,`We must blame somebody.' We were much more focused on this being a learning exercise," said the committee's head, former Oxfam Great Britain director Barbara Stocking, according to the AP. WHO reportedly dragged its feet on declaring the Ebola outbreak a global emergency because the governments of the West African nations involved--Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia--could consider the declaration a "hostile act" that would damage them economically and cause them to lose face in the eyes of developed nations. 

A declaration of emergency is a critical step in the mobilization of resources and personnel to the affected region. However, when WHO finally did hold a press conference in April 2014 to announce the Ebola crisis--well after other groups like Doctors Without Borders had sounded the alarm--little was done in the wake of the announcement. 

In fact, WHO waited until August to declare the outbreak an emergency, at which time nearly 1,000 people were dead and infections were spreading freely across international borders in the region. 

The panel's most pointed criticism was aimed at WHO leadership. The agency "does not have a culture of rapid decision-making and tends to adopt a reactive, rather than a proactive, approach to emergencies," the report states. "In the early stages of the Ebola crisis, messages were sent by experienced staff at headquarters and the Regional Office for Africa, including after deployments in the field, about the seriousness of the crisis."

"It was an escalation of incompetence all the way to the top," Oyewale Tomori, who sits on WHO's Ebola Emergency Group, told the AP. "Nowhere in the report was any recommendation made to sanction staff. A system is not made of tables and chairs, it's made of people."

WHO said in a statement that it is grateful for the work of the committee and agrees there is more work to be done to stop the spread of the virus. 

While the rate of new infections has slowed, Ebola is still claiming new victims in West Africa. The epidemic, now nearly a year and a half old, has killed approximately 11,200 of the estimated 27,500 infected victims, Time reports

To learn more:
- read the panel report (.pdf)
- here's the AP article
- here's the statement from WHO
- check out the Time article

Related Articles
Report slams WHO for Ebola response
Some hospitals fear stigma of Ebola patients
Ebola epidemic slows down, but public health officials prepare for new threat
Ebola outbreak worsens as scientists search for source of virus
in US to protect hospital workers
Nurses to strike over lack of Ebola prep
Ebola: Researchers need access to virus samples for treatment, vaccines
Ebola Watch: Nurses plan protests over lack of preparedness in US hospitals
US hospitals unprepared for Ebola-related medical waste
3 new federal guidelines to contain the Ebola virus
NIH: Revised guidelines will help prevent Ebola spread in US
Ebola response offers public health lessons
WHO: Ebola now an international emergency