The World Health Organization, which is tasked by the United Nations with directing international responses to epidemics, has been widely criticized for its slow response to the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa that has already killed over 10,000 people.
Now, internal documents obtained by the Associated Press reveal that the WHO held off on declaring the outbreak a public health emergency for months, despite warnings from its own employees.
Some experts, including a WHO doctor interviewed by the AP, argue that an earlier alarm could have galvanized a more robust global response and potentially saved lives.
By mid-April, the agency was receiving urgent correspondence from staffers in impacted countries warning that the epidemic was rapidly spreading, but senior officials declined to sound a global alarm. When the WHO held discussions in early June about whether to declare an emergency, a director referred to this option as a "last resort."
AP reporters Maria Cheng and Raphael Satter say the agency cited "worries that declaring such an emergency—akin to an international SOS—could anger the African countries involved, hurt their economies or interfere with the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca."
Furthermore, in public statements, the WHO repeatedly understated the threat posed by Ebola, directly contradicting mounting warnings from aid groups that said the crisis was growing.
The WHO finally declared a public health emergency on August 8, but by that time Ebola had killed at least 932 people, making it the worst outbreak ever recorded.
The problems did not stop there, and the WHO was not alone in its lagging response.
Just weeks after the emergency declaration, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned that the overall global response—especially from wealthy nations—was falling disgracefully short.
"Self-protection is occupying the entire focus of states that have the expertise and resources to make a dramatic difference in the affected countries," declared Brice de le Vingne, MSF director of operations, on August 27. "They can do more, so why don’t they?"