Flawed Ebola response is a learning opportunity

2 min read

Ebola continues to afflict West Africa, with a spike in infections reported in February blamed on unsafe burials. Infectious disease expert Barry Bloom recently looked back at the early days of the current epidemic to dissect the global health response and highlight the contributions of researchers affiliated with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Bloom, who is Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health, spoke to a Harvard Chan audience on February 23, 2015, as part of the Addressing Ebola series sponsored by the Office of the Dean. Previous lectures touched on efforts to genetically analyze Ebola, and on the humanitarian response to the epidemic.

As of early February, Ebola had infected more than 22,000 people and killed more than 9,000. Most cases occurred in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, poorly resourced nations vastly unprepared to provide emergency medical care for their citizens—or to negotiate the complex web of agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) currently providing global health aid.

Bloom explained that the World Health Organization (WHO)—the coordinating authority on all international health work—also was not prepared for this crisis. While the agency possesses tremendous convening power to bring together experts, its complex and bureaucratic structure make rapid response difficult. WHO’s budget is small and largely allocated to existing priorities, Bloom said, leaving scant funds to tap in a crisis. Cutbacks that occurred prior to the epidemic eliminated key staffers and further hampered the response.