WHO Report Details Why Ebola Hit West Africa So Hard On Thursday, the World Health Organization released a 14-chapter analysis of the Ebola epidemic.
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WHO Report Details Why Ebola Hit West Africa So Hard

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WHO Report Details Why Ebola Hit West Africa So Hard

WHO Report Details Why Ebola Hit West Africa So Hard

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're getting a better idea today of what has made the current Ebola outbreak the worst ever recorded. The World Health Organization has just released a 14-part assessment of the crisis, what went wrong and what needs to happen to finally stop the spread of the virus. NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien has been plowing through the report. And, Jason, the WHO has the benefit of hindsight here, right? I mean, what's their assessment of why this Ebola epidemic has been so severe?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Basically what they're describing here is a perfect storm. And they're linking it straight back to deforestation that was happening in that part of Guinea where the first case was originally found. There's some foreign mining companies, some foreign timber companies that have been working there. And the idea is there used to be these barriers between people and the bats, which are believed to be holding the virus. And this deforestation has allowed them to come into contact. The virus then jumps over to people. Once the virus gets a foothold in these countries where you've got some of the poorest countries in the world with some of these very weak health systems, it just really took off. And even though you've got weak health systems in these places, you have these reasonably decent transportation systems with buses and taxis that managed to move the virus. So they're saying that this - all of these conditions sort of contributed to it being the worst - and also just unique burial practices there. They linked back one case they found in Sierra Leone to 365 deaths from a single funeral.

CORNISH: And we should remind people that there have been more than 21,000 cases, right?

BEAUBIEN: That's right.

CORNISH: This outbreak still isn't over. What does the report say, if anything, about the organization's own role - right? - in the inability to contain the epidemic?

BEAUBIEN: It gets into this to some degree. Chapter seven is the key events in the WHO response. And then it goes into the WHO's technical support here. But all of this really casts the WHO as this sort of underfunded organization that's heroically leading the charge against the outbreak. And it is true. The WHO was there. They were on the ground. But the problem is that what they were doing clearly wasn't enough. You know, this is still going on now, as we, you know, just said. And to this day, their mandate is to support the local ministries of health in Liberia and Guinea and Sierra Leone. And so the WHO is viewed by some people in the world as supposedly this agency that's going get in there and deal with any international disease crisis or outbreak. And that's how - but it views itself very differently. It views itself as an agency that's supposed to support and provide technical advice and consultants to local ministries of health. So there's this contradiction there between its mandate and how it views itself and how some other people view it.

CORNISH: So buried further in those later chapters, anything about whether the WHO thinks its role needs to change?

BEAUBIEN: Yes. There's an awareness of this. One section right towards the end looks back to a flu outbreak that happened in 2009. And in a report written in 2010 that was quoted there, it says the world is ill-prepared to respond to a severe influenza pandemic or to any similarly global threatening public health emergency. Well, last year's Ebola outbreak again underscores the world remains ill-prepared to deal with these types of crises. The WHO's board of directors is meeting later this month in Geneva. They're going to look back at the role of the WHO in this outbreak and try to look at, you know, what should be the role of the WHO in the 21st century? Does it have the funding, the tools and, most importantly, the international mandate it needs to take on the next major disease outbreak probably more forcefully?

CORNISH: Jason, thanks so much for explaining it to us.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien on a new report from the World Health Organization examining the Ebola crisis.

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