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02 Mar 2015

The world was caught tragically short in it response to the deadly Ebola epidemic by a failure to absorb the lessons of the 2009 swine flu pandemic.

In a critical assessment of the response to the globe’s worst-ever Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organisation said the international community had failed to learn from the shortcomings laid bare by the H1N1 influenza pandemic, including the need for a ready global reserve of public health workers who can drawn upon in an emergency, the creation of a contingency fund and the development of a comprehensive research and evaluation program.

A WHO review of the swine flu pandemic, conducted in 2010, recommended the measures to address limitations in the world’s preparedness to cope with similar outbreaks in future.

“[But], as the Ebola outbreak has revealed, the world did not respond to these recommendations, with none of these measures fully in place to support a response that could last for many more months to come,” the WHO said, adding that only 64 of its 194 member countries had the surveillance, laboratory, data management and other capabilities considered necessary.

“As a result, the WHO went into battle against this virus with no army of reinforcements to support a sustained response, no war chest to fund a surge, and weapons that date back to the Middle Ages,” it said.

The WHO has been criticised for its response to the Ebola outbreak, and Director-General Dr Margaret Chan has admitted her organisation had been too slow to pick up on the seriousness of the event and recruit the staff it needed on the ground.

“Ebola is a tragedy that has taught the world, including the WHO, many lessons,” Dr Chan said. “The world, including the WHO, was too slow to see what was unfolding before us.”

She has announced changes to the WHO, including consistency in the way it operates in different regions and greater efforts to identify and recruit the experts it needs.

But the WHO said the global community could not rely on its alone to tackle such outbreaks, and emphasised the importance of robust national health systems.

“Countries with weak health systems and few basic public health infrastructures in place cannot withstand sudden shocks,” it warned, observing that the health systems of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone collapsed under the pressure of the Ebola outbreak, leaving thousands vulnerable to other diseases, such as malaria, as well.

“Fair and inclusive health systems are a bedrock of social stability, resilience and economic health,” the WHO said. “Failure to invest in these fundamental infrastructures leaves countries with no backbone to stand up under the weight of the shocks that this century is delivering with unprecedented frequency.”

It said the Ebola outbreak also underlined the importance of strong community engagement to any successful response, including to change behaviours that increased the risk of transmission, as well as greater cross-border coordination, accelerated research effort, better support for health workers and sustained national and international commitment.

The WHO report One year into the Ebola epidemic: a deadly, tenacious and unforgiving virus can be viewed at


Adrian Rollins

Published: 02 Mar 2015