GENEVA, Switzerland — After blistering criticism over how the World Health Organization handled the Ebola outbreak, its Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan announced changes aimed at the way the agency handles health emergencies.
The largest and most complex Ebola outbreak killed over 11,065 people and infected over 26,000 in West Africa, mainly Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Earlier this month, Liberia was declared free of Ebola transmission.
Critics say the WHO — tasked with responding to the world’s health crises — was inefficient and dawdled in declaring an emergency on Ebola. The Ebola outbreak began in 2013 and the WHO declared a public health emergency in August 2014 — months after its staffers rang alarm bells on the severity of the epidemic.
Speaking at the World Health Assembly, which is WHO’s annual decision-making meeting, Chan announced a new program that will deal with health emergencies.
“The program will have performance benchmarks showing what must happen within 24, 48 and 72 hours, not months,” she said.
Chan said there would also be a global health emergency workforce coordinated by the WHO’s new program that could quickly deploy into the field.
“I do not ever again want to see this organization faced with a situation it is not prepared, staffed, funded or administratively set up to manage,” she said. Chan is also seeking a $100 million fund.
It will be up to WHO members whether to fund the new program.
Chan came under fire over her leadership during the Ebola crisis. She said that the WHO was overwhelmed and that the Ebola outbreak “shook this organization to its core.”
Despite widespread criticism, Chan said she never came under pressure to resign, but added that she took responsibility for the agency’s shortcomings: “The buck stops with me,” she said.
An independent panel evaluating how the WHO responded to the Ebola outbreak issued an interim report earlier this month.
That panel found that despite warnings of an “unprecedented outbreak” as early as April 2014, about the severity of Ebola, the WHO did not provide “an effective and adequate response.”
It criticized the WHO’s lack of “robust emergency operations capacity or culture” and its inability to seek help from other U.N. agencies to handle the Ebola outbreak.
In response to widespread criticism, the WHO has pledged to change and modernize.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those urging reform.
“We all want to be honest and draw lessons from the past,” she told health officials on Monday.
“The WHO is the only international organization that has universal political legitimacy on global health issues. This is why it’s so important to render its structures more efficient.”