The Ebola outbreak of 2014-15 was the largest in recorded history. Can governments learn from the mistakes made in handling the epidemic?

[Ebola West Africa]Share on Pinterest
A recent report into the handling of the Ebola outbreak slams WHO.

The Ebola virus initially spreads from animals to humans, then spreads rapidly from human to human. The disease caused by Ebola virus carries a particularly high risk of death.

Upon contraction of the disease, fatality rates range from 25-90%. In total, more than 11,000 people in West Africa died during the recent epidemic.

Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, some of the world’s poorest countries, were worst affected.

This most recent outbreak is now on the retreat, and the time to reflect on how we handled the crisis has begun. The outbreak, which could have easily wiped out vast swathes of humanity, will certainly not be the last.

The Harvard Global Health Institute and the UK’s London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recently convened an independent group of 20 experts to discuss and pick apart the global reaction to the recent Ebola outbreak.

Consisting of members drawn from academia, think tanks and civil society, the group collectively reviewed the worldwide response and combined their findings. Published in The Lancet, the report pulls no punches and sets out a 10-point proposed plan to improve future reactions to similar emergencies.

Chaired by Prof. Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, the panel praised individual acts of courage and solidarity. However, he made it clear that the outbreak also caused:

[…] immense human suffering, fear and chaos, largely unchecked by high-level political leadership or reliable and rapid institutional responses.”

According to the findings, a greater attention to detail and a stronger, quicker response is not only essential, but also achievable.

The World Health Organization (WHO) were at the front of the firing line. The think tank puts a large burden of responsibility around their necks: WHO were aware of the outbreak in spring but did not declare a public health emergency until August.

WHO’s delay in sounding the alarm was a pivotal error, according to the team.

The report’s 10 recommendations hope to give stronger guidance and bolster global systems in preparation for future outbreaks:

  1. A global strategy should be constructed to fund, observe and maintain each nation’s ability to prevent major outbreaks. It is essential that poorer countries are provided with the funding and support necessary for such strategies
  2. Incentivize early flagging of outbreaks. On the other side of the coin, countries that are late to report cases should be published publicly
  3. Create a separately governed WHO department with clear accountability for outbreak response
  4. Construct a politically-protected Standing Emergency Committee within WHO that has the responsibility of declaring public health emergencies
  5. Design an independent UN body responsible for disease outbreak prevention and response within each country
  6. Develop a method to guarantee accelerated research when an emergency occurs including swift access to the benefits of that research for all
  7. Creation of a globally held finance facility in order to fund research, and for essential drugs, diagnostics, vaccines, and relevant non-pharmaceutical supplies
  8. Create a Global Health Committee as part of the UN Security Council that will elevate health issues and ensure swift actions in times of need
  9. WHO should scale back non-essential activities and focus on their core responsibilities
  10. A restructure of WHO to refocus and sharpen their abilities, including installation of leadership willing to challenge even the most powerful nation’s governments.

Another of the panel members, Mosoka Fallah, PhD, of Action Contre La Faim International, puts it rather poignantly:

The human misery and deaths from the Ebola epidemic in West Africa demand a team of independent thinkers to serve as a mirror of reflection on how and why the global response to the greatest Ebola calamity in human history was late, feeble and uncoordinated.

The threats of infectious disease anywhere is the threat of infectious disease everywhere. The world has become one big village.”

The panel’s study director Suerie Moon, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School, is concerned we will fail to learn from our mistakes.

As Moon puts it, “the billion-dollar question is whether political leaders will demand the difficult but necessary reforms needed before the next pandemic.”

The title of the panel’s report begins: “Will Ebola change the game?” That seems to be the major concern. Is it possible for governments and institutions to admit mistakes, correct them and strive to improve? The global population hopes that they can.

Medical News Today recently reported on Sierra Leone’s end to Ebola transmission.