Ebola crisis: WHO slammed by Harvard-convened panel over slow response

Story highlights

  • Report: Lack of reliable, rapid response led to "immense human suffering, fear and chaos"
  • Liberia confirmed three new cases on Saturday after being declared Ebola-free two months ago
  • Recommendations include setting up a health committee on the U.N. Security Council

(CNN)A panel of global health experts has strongly criticized the World Health Organization, saying it mishandled the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The panel, convened by Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, called for extensive reform in the way infectious diseases are managed around the world, but singled out the WHO in particular for criticism.
"The most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm," said Ashish K. Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. "People at WHO were aware that there was an Ebola outbreak that was getting out of control by spring... and yet, it took until August to declare a public health emergency. The cost of the delay was enormous," Jha said.
In a statement to CNN, Dr. Margaret Harris, spokeswoman on Ebola for the WHO, said the organization welcomed the report and was reviewing its recommendations carefully, along with those provided by other groups.
"A number of its recommendations cover work that is already being done -- including steps set in place by WHO in early 2015," she said. "It is gratifying to see that there is consensus of thought on many of these key issues."

    'immense human suffering'

    The Ebola outbreak created "immense human suffering, fear and chaos, largely unchecked by high-level political leadership or reliable and rapid institutional responses," the panel said in a poignantly worded report published in the renowned medical journal "The Lancet."
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    It was collated from the findings of 19 experts across academia, think tanks, humanitarian agencies, and the legal profession.
    Its findings were released one day after Liberia's health ministry confirmed three new cases of the deadly disease, despite the WHO declaring the nation clear two months earlier.
    Liberian health minister Dr. Bernice Dahn said it is possible that more cases will be found.
    More than 11,300 people have died from Ebola since the West African outbreak began. Liberia had the highest number of fatalities with 4,808 deaths, followed by Sierra Leone and Guinea.

    Cost of delay enormous

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    The report outlined 10 recommendations for prevention and handling of infectious disease outbreaks.
    They include the creation of a U.N. Security Council health committee to expedite political attention to health issues, the publishing of a list of countries that are quick to share information and those that delay reporting, and the establishment of a global fund to finance and accelerate the development of outbreak-relevant drugs and treatment.
    Jha said that the world was at risk of failing to learn lessons from the deadly crisis.
    "We've had big outbreaks before and even careful reviews after, but often the world gets distracted," he said. "We owe it to the more than 11,000 people who died in West Africa to see that that doesn't happen this time."