When the first cases of Ebola was first documented in Yambuku, Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1976, the lack of technology and knowledge led the World Health Organization (WHO) to not take necessary actions as needed. As information was made readily available as to how to combat Ebola, the fight to end the epidemic became more strategic. 300 people died due to Ebola in this time, but with the help of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola had been eradicated for the time being.
With the second outbreak of Ebola to hit present-day DRC, many people became frustrated as to the lack of resources being readily available. Knowing what the disease entails, why wouldn’t a vaccine be prepared for when the next outbreak was surely going to hit the area? Many other outbreaks were noted by Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health at the Council of Foreign Relations, and others couldn’t understand why WHO still has not taken the initiative to step in and find preventable ways to treat this disease. When Ebola was first discovered in the United States, many people were quick to find a solution and prevent the disease from causing an outbreak. This has left people to wonder whether consideration is only given to developed countries who have the economic and sustainable means to combat such a disease.
The World Health Organization centers itself around being the globally known institution in which people can lean on in terms of national disasters, epidemics and other prominent health crises. Time and energy has been spent into reconfiguring WHO, but not as much resources have been poured into building up local and national health systems, primarily in developing countries. In Garrett’s article, “How the WHO Mishandled the Crisis,” detailed examples are given as to how the WHO failed with other grave outbreaks such as HIV and Swine Flu. WHO has portrayed themselves in an unfortunate light, with being too fixated on governance and politics and not giving much consideration to actual situations that need to be addressed.
With WHO having the governing power and authority that they possess, more efforts should be placed in elevating local and national health systems. When outbreaks are first beginning in an area, it is imperative that local physicians have the knowledge of what is going on and how to combat the outbreak before it becomes an epidemic. There is a level of frustration when consultation with WHO goes nowhere. By the time WHO effectively steps in (concerning developing countries), hundreds of people have died and there is still no solution to the actual disease itself. Coming from a place of understanding, WHO has been gridlocked into deciding between action or inaction. There has been a discussion surrounding when WHO should intervene and if it is too early to intervene within a country. Yet, WHO would not have to spend so much time deciding whether or not to intervene medically if local and national health systems were able to decipher for themselves what needs to be done.
When the WHO confirmed an Ebola outbreak in March 2014, it was not until five months later that WHO declared the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This goes back to the inefficiency in the WHO being able to detect outbreaks and effectively work alongside local health systems in order to contain the outbreak. It’s not possible to keep every person alive who comes into contact with the disease, but the high numbers of people dying because of ineffectiveness on the ends of local health systems and WHO is unacceptable.
The World Health Organization, along with other prominent institutions in the United Nations, are focused on their status among powerful countries. Especially with powerful countries who are often high-dollar donors to international institutions, keeping the donors happy is something many organizations face on a daily basis. Yet, as powerful as WHO and the UN are, there needs to be effective pushback towards these countries.
Yes, WHO was able to respond in a more timely manner to the outbreak of Zika (even though the outbreak was not nearly as large as Ebola), but this does not deter from their inefficiency as an international organization. This does not correlate to the WHO learning their lesson from the Ebola epidemic. Rather, they have overcompensated in terms of trying to stay ahead of outbreaks, which is admirable. But can we confidently believe that WHO has learned from the past? Does WHO only learn when outbreaks reach the Western world and/or donor countries? Hopefully, WHO will learn to work alongside local and national health systems in order to advance the health and protection of all people.