Poor communication, a lack of leadership and underfunding plagued the World Health Organization‘s initial response to the Ebola outbreak, allowing the disease to spiral out of control.
In one instance, medics weren’t deployed because they weren’t issued visas. In another, bureaucratic hurdles delayed the spending of $500,000 intended to support the disease response. Meanwhile, fresh information on the outbreak from experts in the field was slow to reach headquarters, while contact-tracers refused to work on concern they wouldn’t get paid.
The account of the WHO’s missteps, based on interviews with five people familiar with the agency who asked not to be identified, lifts the veil on the workings of an agency designed as the world’s health warden yet burdened by politics and bureaucracy.
“It needs to be a wakeup call,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University in Washington. The WHO is suffering from “a culture of stagnation, failure to think boldly about problems, and looking at itself as a technical agency rather than a global leader.”
WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in a telephone interview that she was not aware of the scope of the health crisis until she received a memo in late June outlining her local team’s deficiencies — three months after the outbreak was detected.
Describing herself as “very unhappy” after reading the memo, Chan took personal command of the agency’s Ebola plan two days later.
She moved to replace the heads of offices in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and upgraded the emergency to the top of a three-tier level, said the five people, who declined to be identified because the information isn’t public. Chan agreed to respond to their accounts in an interview.
“I was not fully informed of the evolution of the outbreak,” she said yesterday. “We responded, but our response may not have matched the scale of the outbreak and the complexity of the outbreak.”
The spread of Ebola on three continents, with cases in Spain and the U.S., has increased focus on the leadership needed to battle such a disease. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, faced calls to resign from Republican lawmakers Pete Sessions and Tom Marino this week. President Barack Obama yesterday named former White House official Ron Klain to coordinate the U.S. domestic response.