London, United Kingdom (AFP) — The World Health Organization (WHO) is institutionally unprepared to deal with outbreaks like the Ebola crisis and requires urgent and fundamental change, an independent panel of experts warned Tuesday.
More than 11,000 people have died from the highly infectious Ebola virus in the past 18 months, most them in the west African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where it continues to claim lives.
The WHO has been criticised for its slow response – it only declared a global public health emergency on August 8, 2014, five months after the outbreak had taken hold.
In a highly critical report, a UN-appointed panel warned that the WHO “tends to adopt a reactive, rather than a proactive approach to emergencies” and failed to act on the warnings of experienced staff on the ground.
When it finally mobilised, Director-General Margaret Chan and senior staff failed to show the “independent and courageous decision-making” required to deal with governments of the affected countries, it said.
The UN agency also failed to engage with local communities early on or to communicate what could be done, for example, to reduce the infection risk from burials, the panel said.
In Guinea, communities are still not convinced of their own responsibilities.
“Until that issue is resolved, very high alert levels need to be maintained,” the experts warned.
However, the panel led by Barbara Stocking, a former head of Oxfam, rejected suggestions that global health emergencies be taken over by another UN agency or a new body altogether.
It called for more investment in the WHO, including a $100 million (92 million euros) emergency contingency fund and a five percent increase in regular contributions from member states, warning a lack of funds put it at a “severe disadvantage”.
The panel recommended the creation of a new emergency centre that would respond to and manage global crises, and welcomed plans for more training for rapid response staff.
The experts also accused WHO member states of failing in their own duty to prepare for global emergencies, and for failing to listen to WHO advice on closing borders and grounding flights once the Ebola outbreak took hold.
“The panel is convinced that WHO must make fundamental changes, particularly in terms of leadership and decision-making processes, in order to deliver on this mandate,” it concluded.
“But it will also require the resources and political will of the member states to make WHO the agency that can fulfil this mandate in the 21st century. This transformation must be carried out urgently.”