WHO Video: Touchy-feely response to harsh international criticism?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Yesterday, the WHO released a short YouTube video, "If you can beat Ebola, you can beat anything," featuring the story of a Liberian doctor who contracted Ebola and recovered with the help of his family. After some dramatic music and musing from Dr. Philip Ireland, the video goes on to interview several other clinicians who provide hopeful reflections on how to better prepare African countries to respond to future outbreaks.

The video's description reads:
When Ebola hit West Africa the healthcare systems of the region were under-financed and poorly equipped. Liberia had only 130 doctors for a country of 4.5 million people. Many of those doctors died of the disease. As Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone look to the future and to rebuilding their countries, recruiting and training doctors, nurses and other health professionals will be key to avoiding another devastating crisis. Dr Ireland, a Liberian doctor who has recovered from Ebola, says in the video that if you can beat Ebola you can beat anything.

Ensuring quality healthcare and protection from disease outbreaks for the people living in Ebola affected and other poor countries is possible and our Number 1 health priority.
It's safe to assume that the video is part of WHO's PR response to the damning assessment of its handling of the persistent Ebola outbreak that is still (yes, still) going after over a year. While MSF began calling for outside intervention fairly early on, the WHO intentionally delayed sounding its own alarm and even contradicted MSF's assessment of the severity of the outbreak due to political pressures:
Among the reasons the United Nations agency cited in internal deliberations: 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.

Those arguments struck critics, experts and several former WHO staff as wrong-headed.
...
In public comments, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan has repeatedly said the epidemic caught the world by surprise.

"The disease was unexpected and unfamiliar to everyone, from (doctors) and laboratory staff to governments and their citizens," she said in January. Last week, she told an audience in London that the first sign that West Africa's Ebola crisis might become a global emergency came in late July, when a consultant fatally ill with the disease flew from Liberia to a Nigerian airport.

But internal documents obtained by AP show that senior directors at the health agency's headquarters in Geneva were informed of how dire the situation was early on and held off on declaring a global emergency.
More recently, an expert assessment commissioned by the WHO to review the organization's response released its own findings. While somewhat critical, the report was much more muted and also fairly optimistic (as self-assessments are bound to be). In addition to internal reforms, the report calls for a revision of the International Health Regulations; there was a commentary piece calling for the same thing in the most recent issue of Lancet Global Health (I am not sure if the authors of the article were also on the panel). For its own part, MSF responded in its typical straight-shooting fashion:
“MSF has repeatedly raised the alarm on the WHO and global response to Ebola and was also interviewed by the panel. On paper, there are a lot of strong points in the report that reflect many issues MSF is concerned about, but the question how will this translate into real action on the ground in future outbreaks and epidemics and what will Member States do to make sure this really happens?

We have seen so many reports calling for change, with everyone focused on how to improve future response and meanwhile, with 20-25 new Ebola cases per week in the region, we still don`t have the current epidemic under control. On Ebola, we went from global indifference, to global fear, to global response and now to global fatigue. We must finish the job.”

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