UN Health Agency Admits Mistakes, While US Ramps Up Ebola Response

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UN Health Agency Admits Mistakes, While US Ramps Up Ebola Response

'Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall,' the World Health Organization said

U.S. officials get a tour of the new 25-bed critical care hospital for all health workers on the frontlines of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. (Photo: Morgana Wingard for USAID/flickr/cc)

As President Barack Obama appointed an 'Ebola czar' and contemplated imposing restrictions on travelers coming to the U.S. from West African countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) admitted that it dropped the ball in stemming the still-spiraling Ebola outbreak in West Africa, blaming factors ranging from internal politics to poor communication between infectious disease experts and the U.N. health agency's headquarters.

"Nearly everyone involved in the outbreak response failed to see some fairly plain writing on the wall," the WHO said in a draft internal document obtained by the Associated Press—an assessment that seems to apply not just to the WHO, but to personnel in all countries affected by the viral disease that has killed close to 5,000 people.

AP reports: "[T]he agency wrote that experts should have realized that traditional infectious disease containment methods wouldn't work in a region with porous borders and broken health systems" and "acknowledged that, at times, even its own bureaucracy was a problem. It noted that the heads of WHO country offices in Africa are 'politically motivated appointments' made by the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Luis Sambo, who does not answer to the agency's chief in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan."

Also on Friday, the UN's World Food Programme warned that the health crisis could soon become a "food and nutrition crisis." The food supply has been disrupted by the death of farmers and by government decisions to quarantine districts and restrict movements to contain the spread of the virus. As a result, food prices have risen by an average of 24 percent across the three countries worst hit by the Ebola outbreak, forcing some families to reduce their intake to one meal a day, Reuters reported.

The issue of hunger could be compounded if Obama implements a travel ban to the U.S. from West African countries, a prospect some experts warned against.

"A travel ban would...hurt the region economically," Jonathan Cohn wrote in the New Republic. "And while it might seem frivolous to worry about dollars (or other currencies) when it comes to matters of life and death, the issues are inextricably linked. The more the people of these countries face deprivation, whether its lack of jobs or lack of food, the more they will push to leave."

There are other concerns: "An accelerated mobilization of personnel and resources is necessary to control the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and care for patients, through the establishment of new Ebola management centers," Tim Shenk, a press officer with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders told Inter Press Service. "For this reason, it is crucial that airlines continue flying to the affected region."

Recognizing that there have been failures along the way, Paul Farmer and Rajesh Panjabi, both of Harvard Medical School, argued on Friday that Ebola can be stopped:

This epidemic of Ebola was preventable. Ebola started in the rainforest, and it could have been stopped there if a strong healthcare system had been in place. Instead, its rapid and deadly progression was enabled by underdeveloped and underfunded health systems ill-equipped to identify, contain and combat major health threats. It's no accident that Liberia was hardest hit: it only receives 3 percent of its development assistance through national institutions.

Ebola does not need to be a death sentence. With the right staff, stuff, systems, and space to provide high-quality treatment and care, mortality rates can be dramatically reduced and risks to health care workers and family members of patients, those most vulnerable to exposure, can also be diminished.

Farmer has advocated decentralizing the medical response to Ebola in West Africa. Earlier this month, following a trip to Liberia, he told the Washington Post: "This isn’t a natural disaster. This is the terrorism of poverty."

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