Why The World Health Organization Is Struggling To Contain The Ebola Epidemic

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Michael Duff

A man and woman taking part in a Ebola prevention campaign holds a placard with an Ebola prevention in the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone

The globe is currently in the midst of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says will likely stretch on for at least six more months and result in at least 20,000 more infections. As experts are scrambling to stem the rate of infections, the UN agency says it desperately needs more money, more staff, and more global support to get the job done.

Although WHO has been responding to the Ebola crisis for months, the outbreak has shown no signs of slowing. Nearly 2,000 people have died, and infections have recently spread to Nigeria and Senegal. A third American missionary was just infected in Liberia and flown to an isolation unit in Nebraska.

“We don’t have enough health workers, doctors, nurses, drivers and contact tracers to handle the increasing number of cases,” Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s assistant director-general for global health security, said on Thursday. “Most of the infections are happening in the community, and many people are unwilling to identify themselves as ill. And if they do, we don’t have enough ambulances to transport them or beds to treat them yet.”

The global health agency estimates that it needs about $600 million in additional donations to fight the deadly virus in West Africa. In order to accomplish that, the international response needs to scale up to about four times what it currently is.

Most of WHO’s funding comes from donor countries and voluntary contributions from philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates. And, as detailed in the New York Times this week, recent budget cuts to the UN agency have undermined its ability to rapidly respond to public health threats. The global financial crisis forced WHO to slash nearly $1 billion from its proposed two-year budget, which led to a about a 16 percent reduction in staff.

“Its outbreak and emergency response units have been slashed, veterans who led previous fights against Ebola and other diseases have left, and scores of positions have been eliminated — precisely the kind of people and efforts that might have helped blunt the outbreak in West Africa before it ballooned into the worst Ebola epidemic ever recorded,” the New York Times reported.

As global health experts are putting out increasingly desperate calls for help, some American institutions are attempting to lend a hand. This week, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a much-anticipated trial in hopes of developing an effective Ebola treatment. USAID has started seeking members of the medical community who might be willing to volunteer in Western Africa. And members of U.S. Congress are requesting a hearing on the ongoing Ebola outbreak to figure out what can be done to address the health crisis.

“We are not in a position where we can afford to lose even a day,” David Nabarro, the senior system coordinator for the UN’s response to Ebola, said this week. “This outbreak is moving ahead of efforts to control it.”