WASHINGTON — International health officials warned Thursday that recent budget cuts have impeded the ability of the World Health Organization to respond to the Ebola outbreak that has killed at least 603 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
"The situation in West Africa should be a wake-up call to recognize that this weakening of this institution on which we all depend is not in anybody's interest," Scott Dowell, director
of disease detection and emergency response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a briefing in Washington. "In my view, there's no way that WHO can respond in a way that we need it to."
Partly because of declining donations from member countries during the global recession, the United Nations-backed WHO has suffered a 12 percent drop in its program budget in the last two years. This year's budget is $3.98 billion.
Efforts to address the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in 40 years also have been hindered by the failure of some countries to implement the WHO's International Health Regulations, which went into effect in 2007, Dowell said. The regulations require countries to report outbreaks of certain diseases, including smallpox, polio and new strains of influenza, to the organization.
"We saw spread and chaos ... and, frankly, a lack of strong leadership combined with very poor public health infrastructure in the area," Dowell said. Such poor management led to the resurgence of the virus, he said.
About 80 percent of U.N. member countries, including the U.S., have not met their public health policy obligations to the organization, Dowell said.
Many countries could take years to develop the ability to survey disease outbreaks, including monitoring who is travelling into the country and developing a laboratory that can track pathogens nationwide, said Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director general for health security. In the meantime, they will need technical assistance from wealthier countries, he said.
"If there are poor areas of the world where pathogens can get a head start, we're all vulnerable," Dowell warned.
Fukuda also expressed concern about his organization's ability to respond to simultaneous, multiple outbreaks around the world.
"I think the answer is fairly clear," Fukuda said. "I don't think we're quite ready. We're not adequately set up or prepared to deal with those things."
Los Angeles Times