Ebola epidemic was 'avoidable,' caused by slow global response

An Ebola burial team carries the body of a woman from a home in the New Kru Town suburb on Oct. 10, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo by John Moore/Getty)
An Ebola burial team carries the body of a woman from a home in the New Kru Town suburb on Oct. 10, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia.

The magnitude of the Ebola outbreak could have been avoided, according to a leading medical charity's scathing new report. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – also known as Doctors Without Borders — places the blame for the worst-ever Ebola outbreak on slow international response.

The group's report specifically targeted local governments and the World Health Organization for not effectively stopping the epidemic in its earliest stages. “The world at first ignored the calls for help and then belatedly decided to act. Meanwhile, months were wasted and lives were lost,” the report declared on the anniversary of the first confirmed case of Ebola.

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MSF argues that their calls for resources were ignored until the disease crossed the ocean and popped up in the U.S. and Europe. “When Ebola became an international security threat, and no longer a humanitarian crisis affecting a handful of poor countries in west Africa, finally the world began to wake up,” MSF International President Dr. Joanne Liu said in the report.

The World Health Organization didn’t lead the international response, mobilize resources, or facilitate the sharing of information, the report adds, and local government downplayed the epidemic. In the last year, more than 20,000 were infected with Ebola and more than than 10,200 have died, but MSF says these numbers understate the devastation Ebola wrecked on West Africa. “No one knows the true number of deaths the epidemic will have ultimately caused: the resulting collapse of health services means that untreated malaria, complicated deliveries and car crashes will have multiplied the direct Ebola deaths many times over,” they said. 

MSF’s report is supported by both WHO’s own acknowledgement that they acted too slowly and by previous Associated Press reporting, which found that although senior WHO officials proposed declaring an emergency in June, the organization refused to do so until August. That declaration triggered a global deployment of health workers, but WHO officials have maintained that their delayed response did not cost lives. 

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Even as the world looks at how it handled their response early in the epidemic, the Ebola epidemic is not yet over. West Africa hospitals continue to treat Ebola patients; after two weeks of being Ebola-free, another case of Ebola appeared in Liberia this week. A woman in Santa Barbara, California, is also being monitored for a possible Ebola infection after travelling abroad. 

“The Ebola outbreak has been often described as a perfect storm: a cross border epidemic in countries with weak public health systems that had never seen Ebola before,” MSF General Director Christopher Stokes said. “Yet this is too convenient an explanation. For the Ebola outbreak to spiral this far out of control required many institutions to fail. And they did, with tragic and avoidable consequences.”