UN officials are expressing cautious optimism that the tide has been turned in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa which has now claimed more than 8,600 lives.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, announced last week that the number of new cases of Ebola in the three countries most affected Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, is falling and declared Mali to be Ebola-free. In addition, the most seriously affected country, Sierra Leone, said it is to reopen its schools after an 8-month closure.
While saying the epidemic has reached a turning point, WHO officials are also warning there is always a risk of resurgence. There is a particular focus on western Sierra Leone which remains the most seriously affected part of the region.
To underline the need to maintain the anti-Ebola momentum, the UN launched an appeal at the World Economic Forum in Davos for an extra $1 billion (£660 million) to deal with Ebola and its impact on the region over the next six months.
The appeal was made jointly by David Nabarro, the UN Special Envoy on Ebola, and the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, who cautioned “complacency would be our worst enemy.”
The apparent success of the UN-led fight against Ebola followed what the Director General of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, herself has acknowledged was an earlier failure by the world health body.
An internal WHO report, leaked to the media last October, says it failed to respond in time to warnings the disease was spreading and Dr Chan, told Bloomberg last October she was not aware of the scope of the epidemic until she received a memo in June, three months after WHO officials in West Africa had first reported cases of the disease.
The leading medical NGO, MSF, had been warning since April the outbreak in Guinea was unprecedented and accused the WHO of taking the epidemic much too lightly.
The international effort to help the West African countries tackle Ebola only really got going in September after the UN elevated it from an international public health emergency to a threat to international peace and security.
The UN Security Council was convened for the first time ever over a public health crisis in September and passed the resolution establishing of UNMEER – the UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response – to lead and coordinate the efforts to eradicate the outbreak by the three countries, UN agencies and member states, and NGOs.
The three worst affected countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are among the world’s poorest and have rudimentary health care systems. In order to kick start the UN’s anti-Ebola efforts, the United States pledged $1 billion (£660 million) and deployed 3,000 troops to Liberia to build field hospitals. Britain pledged £230 million and took the lead in its former colony Sierra Leone, deploying 750 military personnel to build five treatment centres and France sent troops to its former colony Guinea to build a field hospital there.
In the US particularly there was criticism of the use of the military against Ebola. One retired army officer, Lt General William Boykin, said it was a misuse of the army arguing it was inappropriate because soldiers are trained to fight wars not disease.
So why did Ebola come to be seen as a security threat meriting a Security Council resolution and the deployment of troops? Continue reading