Top UN Officials Warn of Ebola’s Stubborn Persistence in West Africa

Today, at the IMF-World Bank Group Spring Meeting leaders of the three Ebola-affected West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, will share their plans for early recovery and efforts to rebuild resilient health systems. With Ebola cases declining, these countries’ leaders are seeking to recruit international partners in rebuilding trust and confidence in their fragile health systems.

The outbreak has certainly slowed down dramatically in recent weeks. But a trio of top UN and WHO officials in Washington this week are warning that it is still far too soon to declare victory.

The Ebola virus outbreak was first reported by the World Health Organization in West Africa on March 23, 2014. Since then, the outbreak has resulted in 25,000 reported cases and claimed 10,000 lives. At the height of the pandemic, the number of reported cases were doubling every three weeks. The unprecedented severity and magnitude of the Ebola outbreak was matched by an equally unprecedented multilateral and multi-level global response, led and coordinated by the WHO.

Last August, in response to a sharp uptick in reported cases, the World Health Organization released its Ebola Response Roadmap detailing an ambitious plan to stop the deadly virus’ transmission within 6 to 9 months.  With little over a month to go before the plan’s timeframe goal expires, efforts to prevent and control the virus are ongoing– with a total of 37 cases reported as of the week of April 12, including none at all in Liberia.


Speaking to reporters this week on the status of the UN’s Ebola Response Plan at the offices of the United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C, three senior-level WHO and UN officials, including WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, outlined the successes and lessons learned from the response, while highlighting the work of the country’s governments and health workers on the frontlines.

Rates of transmissions have decreased, resulting in the lowest number of cases in the fewest places since last May. The original site of the outbreak, a densely forested area straddling the three West African countries, has been Ebola-free for 42 continuous days. A recent rise in Guinea’s reported cases witnessed a robust and collective response effort by aid workers looking to isolate the virus to Guinea’s coastal areas prior to the onset of the rainy season, while outreach efforts by public health workers to visit and educate over 30,000 households have been key in combating the virus.

However, the threat of Ebola still looms large in affected countries. Advances against the virus come at a troubling moment for the region, as the onset of the rainy season threatens to derail gains made against the disease.  This is especially concerning given waning international interest and the threat of complacency outside of Ebola-affected countries.

“There is a terrible and growing sense that this [Ebola] is done. Our work is not done. Success is not assured,” the WHO’s Dr. Bruce Aylward told reporters ahead of Friday’s World Bank-IMF Spring Meetings.

This message was reinforced by Dr. Chan, highlighting the weaknesses present in global responses to future outbreaks, imploring world leaders to heed Ebola as a warning. “The world is ill-prepared for severe and sustained outbreaks….the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak exposed the weaknesses in the national systems in terms of capacity, in terms of coordination, as well at the international level.”

Dr. Chan went on to characterize recent successes against Ebola as an opportunity to invest in, and rebuild global, national, and local institutional structures for early warning virus detection, global health commodities, and response mechanisms necessary for large-scale outbreak response– lamenting previous missed opportunities after other successive global outbreaks.

“Let me urge leaders of the world to make the political and financial decisions to make sure that national and international systems [are in place] to protect global health security,” Dr. Chan stated. “This is not an opportunity to be missed as we did in 2011 with h1N1.”

Dr. David Nabarro, the UN’s ebola response coordinator, equated the risk, and level of resources needed, to terrorism. He was blunt in his warning: “[outbreaks] is a cause of insecurity that needs to be taken as seriously as terrorism. It needs defenses that are as well financed and organized as [our response to] terrorism,” because in this “highly-connected, globalized world, disease threat in one country is a threat to all countries.”