WHO 'unfit for health emergencies'

  • 7 July 2015
  • From the section Health
A health care worker wearing virus protective gear before entering a high risk zone at an Ebola virus clinic operated by the International Medical Corps in Makeni, Sierra Leone 2 March 2015 Image copyright AP

The Ebola crisis proves the World Health Organization (WHO) lacks the "capacity and culture" to deal with global health emergencies, says a damning independent report, commissioned by the WHO itself.

The review panel says WHO was too slow to act to get on top of the deadly virus which has now killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa.

And it calls for an urgent overhaul of the organisation.

WHO says it has plans for reform.

It has already admitted that it waited too long to declare Ebola a public health emergency of international concern.

WHO Director General, Margaret Chan, admitted in May it had been "overwhelmed" by the Ebola outbreak, saying it "shook this organization to its core".


The disease began spreading in December 2013, but it took until August 2014 for WHO to sound the alarm. By that point, more than 1,000 people had died of the virus.

The death toll now stands at more than 11,000.

According to the report, WHO lacked a culture of rapid decision-making.

Image copyright Getty Images

In the early stages of the Ebola crisis, messages were sent about the seriousness of the situation but these "either did not reach senior leaders or senior leaders did not recognise their significance".

"There seems to have been a hope that the crisis could be managed by good diplomacy rather than by scaling up emergency action," the report says.

WHO was also criticised for failing to keep governments and the public up to speed about the extent and severity of the outbreak.

But the review praised WHO for playing a critical role in pushing forward work to find new treatments and cures for Ebola.

And it said WHO should be given the job of leading future health emergency responses - be that for Ebola or an outbreak of pandemic flu, for example.

Averting new crises

The report suggests an immediate contribution from all member countries towards a $100 million special outbreak response fund, and says WHO should establish a Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

The panel's head, Dame Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of the charity Oxfam, said the WHO must now be made fit for the task.

"To me, coming from somewhere like Oxfam which is an emergency culture, you are very much, if you like, on the front foot. You are always trying to prevent a situation coming through or grab it when it starts and really get it under control very fast and those are some of the internal changes that have to be made at WHO."

The WHO said it was "already moving forward" on some of the panel's recommendations including the development of the global health emergency workforce and the contingency fund.

It will be up to member states to make these voluntary financial contributions.

Dr Joanne Liu, President of MSF International, questioned how the recommendations would translate to real action on the ground.

"We have seen so many reports calling for change, with everyone focused on how to improve future response and meanwhile, with 20-25 new Ebola cases per week in the region, we still don`t have the current epidemic under control. On Ebola, we went from global indifference, to global fear, to global response and now to global fatigue. We must finish the job," she said.

Dr Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said the support of the global community was crucial if we are to avert another catastrophe on the scale of Ebola."

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