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WHO Admits it Boggled Ebola Response, Aims to Improve

Apr 21, 2015 03:31 PM EDT
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The Ebola outbreak, which made headlines just last year, is slowly but surely coming under control, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and public health initiatives. However, it took a long time and countless deaths to get to this point - something that the WHO says is unacceptable. Now the organization is admitting to partial fault for this disaster, with its investigators and directors quick to say that they will make use of the lessons they have learned moving forward.

Ebola isn't exactly a virus that needs an introduction (explore the history of Ebola here). It has been causing complete disarray in West Africa for the greater part of the last 15 months, jumping from Guinea's most remote regions to its capital, and on to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other bordering countries. Symptoms include severe fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and horrific bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth, and rectum.

The virus traditionally boasts a mortality rate hovering just under 50 percent, but because of poor early management and identification, the virus was initially killing up to 90 percent of its known victims in African urban areas. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : European Commission DG ECHO)

At its peak, the ensuing epidemic was seeing a stunning average of 500 reported cases in Sierra Leone every week. Neighboring Guinea boasted a peak of about 150 weekly cases and Liberia saw about 400 cases a week during the worst of the outbreaks.

These days, those averages have significantly dropped, with a grand total (between all affected  countries) of 37 confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) reported in the week of April 12.

Plenty of Room for Improvement

Still, it took more than a year for the world to get to this point. In a joint statement from the WHO's director-general, deputy director-general and regional directors, the organization admitted that while "we can mount a highly effective response to small and medium-sized outbreaks... when faced with an emergency of this scale, our current capacities and systems - national and international - simply have not coped."

And these shortcomings played no small role in allowing for a grand total of 25,791 confirmed and probable cases of EVD to arise since the epidemic began in December 2013. The tragic result was well over 10,600 deaths, according to the WHO.

"We have learned that new diseases and old diseases in new contexts must be treated with humility and an ability to respond quickly to surprises," the organization said - a testament to how badly the respective June and July outbreak surges in Sierra Leone and Liberia caught the WHO and its containment partners unawares. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.) US hospitals practice protocols for taking on Ebola patients while ensuring minimal exposure to patients and staff.

"We have learned lessons of solidarity," the WHO added - a tip-of-the hat to quickly ramped efforts to keep the disease contained in the three worst affected countries. The disease did in fact manage to reach countries like the United States and France, but only in isolated and imported cases that did not result in further outbreaks.

"We have learned that the global surveillance and response system is only as strong as its weakest links, and in an increasingly globalized world, a disease threat in one country is a threat to us all," the organization announced. "Shared vulnerability means shared responsibility and therefore requires sharing of resources, and sharing of information."

Sharing is Caring

And some of that shared information may help with future outbreaks, even if they aren't on such an incredibly difficult-to-manage scale. For instance, last August the WHO revealed that an "unprecedented" number of healthcare workers had developed the disease in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone.

This was largely because the proper precautions weren't taken or enforced in understaffed hospitals early on. However, as nations launched their own investigations, management strategies were shared and the situation improved. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : WHO/Rob Holden)

Additionally, the sharing of data is helping researchers identify which genes can help a patient resist or even be immune to the virus - a boon for doctors trying to triage patients and for organizations trying to determine who should be deployed to work in the most risky containment zones.

Pooled data has also allowed for the speedy development of several promising vaccine options that could ensure an epidemic of West Africa's scale is never seen again.

An experimental vaccine called VSV-ZEBOV has already shown promise in early human trails, encouraging the development of Ebola antibodies in healthy volunteers in four weeks or less.

And this vaccine was developed by scientists at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). While the North American country did not see any Ebola cases of its own, it committed $110 million in health, humanitarian, and security contributions to help fight the epidemic's spread. That was one of the largest contributions seen, second only to the United States. Both countries also deployed mobile labs to share medical care and investigative expertise in West Africa.

In the End, It's All About Trust

"Finally, we have learned the importance of communication," the Who added.

"Ebola is a disease that scares people and that is perceived as mysterious, but people can overcome it," Marie-Christine Ferir, the Emergency Coordinator for WHO partner Medecins Sans Frontieres, had said in a past statement. "Earning people's trust is essential in efforts to fight the epidemic." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : WHO/D. Licona) Who epidemiologists investigate outbreaks case by-case, trying to determine who has been exposed to a victim and could be at risk themselves.

In the early days of the epidemic, investigators had noted that strong superstitions and misconceptions about the virus were inhibiting their containment efforts. Not only were locals trying to fight the virus with alcoholic purges or even anti-"curse" remedies, but aid workers were being attacked out of suspicion and fear.

"To ensure a more efferent response of future outbreaks, the WHO has promised to "develop expertise in community engagement in outbreak preparedness and response."

"We will emphasize the importance of community systems strengthening and work with partners to develop multidisciplinary approaches to community engagement , informed by anthropology and other social sciences," the organization said.

Lastly, the WHO pledged to develop better relations with all governments and policymakers in at-risk regions to promote an understanding of the WHO's role to battle disease on the world stage.

"This is our commitment," the organization concluded. "Together we will ensure that WHO is reformed and well positioned to play its rightful role in disease outbreaks, humanitarian emergencies, and in global health security."

(Photo : WHO/D. Licona)

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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