Delay in Ebola Alert Led to Lives Being Lost Needlessly

The Ebola crisis claimed lives needlessly because the World Health Organisation was scared to sound the alarm after being criticised for causing panic during the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, health experts have claimed.

Published: 23rd November 2015 07:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd November 2015 07:47 AM   |  A+A-

The Ebola crisis claimed lives needlessly because the World Health Organisation was scared to sound the alarm after being criticised for causing panic during the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, health experts have claimed.

An independent panel of 19 specialists, including scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has called for sweeping reforms to ensure there is no repeat of the catastrophe, which killed more than 11,000 people.

Their main criticism was the WHO's failure to respond quickly when the disease first emerged in Guinea.

Internal memos seen by the panel showed that the WHO was reluctant to declare a public health emergency because it did not want to upset African dictators and feared it would be criticised if the outbreak turned out to be mild, like the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

"The long-delayed and problematic international response to the outbreak resulted in needless suffering and death, social and economic havoc, and a loss of confidence in national and global institutions," the panel concluded.

"The Ebola outbreak witnessed many types of failures. The lack of capacity to detect the virus for several months was a key failure, allowing Ebola eventually to spread to bordering Liberia and Sierra Leone."

The WHO was criticised for operating a culture which discouraged debate about sensitive issues and putting "economic ramifications" and "political opposition from West African leaders" ahead of public health.

The panel added: "WHO might also have hesitated because it was sharply criticised for creating panic by declaring a public health emergency of international concern during the relatively mild 2009 H1N1 pandemic."

The Ebola epidemic began in December 2013 in a remote part of Guinea. It is thought a child picked up the disease while playing with an infected bat.

But in March 2014, with "ample evidence the outbreak had overwhelmed national and non-governmental capacities" the WHO failed to mobilise global assistance. Prof Peter Piot, the director of the London School Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, co-chair of the panel, said: "We need to strengthen core capacities in all countries to detect, report and respond rapidly to small outbreaks, in order to prevent them from becoming large-scale emergencies."

uEbola has returned to Liberia, with three cases confirmed in one family, two months after the country was declared free of the virus and days after the last country affected in West Africa, Guinea, cleared its last case.

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