Tue, Sep 22, 2015 - Page 6 News List

Litany of errors seems to have crippled Ebola fight

WHO TO BLAME?Disaster and health experts say the mistakes make them feel the current WHO leadership is incapable of handling an international epidemic

AP, KENEMA, Sierra Leone

Nurse Donnell Tholley, 26, who worked at the Kenema Government Hospital during the Ebola outbreak, holds Donnell Junior, whom he adopted after the baby’s mother died of Ebola, at his apartment in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on Aug. 18.

Photo: AP

The chlorine was expired. The protective gear was missing. And the red tape was so thick that responders fighting last year’s Ebola outbreak had trouble getting approval for boots and buckets.

Last year’s Ebola epidemic pitted a lethal virus against barely-there health systems, and it was always going to be deadly. However, an Associated Press investigation has found that a string of avoidable errors badly undermined the work of international aid workers.

The WHO, charged with leading the fight against global outbreaks, already has been criticized over its management of the disease-fighting effort. Earlier this year, an AP investigation found that the WHO delayed declaring an international emergency — similar to an SOS signal — on political and economic grounds. Newly obtained e-mails, documents and interviews show that the WHO and other responders failed to organize a strong response even after the signal was issued.

Experts say that the bungling ultimately cost lives.

“There’s no question that a better and earlier response from WHO could have resulted in thousands and thousands of fewer deaths than we saw,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York.

Kenema is a diamond town whose potholed roads turn to red sludge in the rainy season. Experts and insiders say the chaotic response there last year was a microcosm of the Ebola-fighting efforts across West Africa as the disease spiraled out of control.

To date, Ebola has killed more than 11,000 people and officials estimate the epidemic won’t be stopped before the end of the year.

As Ebola cases climbed in July last year, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) identified Kenema as one of two priority areas.

“Transportation, PPE [personal protective equipment] and other equipment must [be] provided,” she wrote on July 24 last year.

However, staffers regularly received expired or questionable chlorine, incidents that spooked an already rattled staff.

Nurse Donnell Tholley said workers sometimes resorted to donning ill-fitting gloves for their hands and stray plastic packaging on their feet — instead of the tall protective rubber boots they needed.

More than 40 health workers died and others abandoned the hospital out of fear.

Joseph Fair, a US disease expert in Freetown advising the Sierra Leonean government, described the WHO as “paralyzed,” recalling interminable conference calls debating things like the color of body bags.

The situation at Kenema Government Hospital was horrific — blood-drenched patients lay in agony in understaffed wards and WHO staffers made repeated requests for support that went unanswered. Other aid workers declined to work there, citing the dangerous conditions; there was virtually no triage and patients often were shuffled to the Ebola ward with incomprehensible slips of paper.

When the Red Cross offered to build an Ebola treatment center to alleviate the pressure on the hospital, it was held up because no one in Sierra Leone’s government or the WHO could tell them where to build it.

“We are at risk of very poor perception by the public when we send in IFRC [International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies] then block their ability to care for patients,” the WHO’s Ian Norton wrote in a note to his colleagues.

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