UNITED NATIONS._ In addition to the high human and economic cost that have resulted from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the epidemic – which is still pounding Guinea and Sierra Leone – has provided important lessons to the international community for potential future health emergencies.

Since it was first detected at the end of 2013, the disease has caused more than 11,000 deaths, with 26,600 cases reported, mainly in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

After six weeks of no new cases reported, Liberia was recently declared Ebola-free.

Given the huge impact and rapid spread of the epidemic, many people from around the world wonder: Are we ready to cope with a crisis of that magnitude rapidly and effectively? Which are the measures to be taken to halt such lethal diseases from spreading?

In addition to the high human and economic cost that have resulted from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the epidemic – which is still pounding Guinea and Sierra Leone – has provided important lessons to the international community for potential future health emergencies.Following a request by the UN member countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, Margaret Chan, activated a panel of independent experts in March with the mission of making an assessment report on the Ebola impact, including vulnerabilities and experiences.

The panel recently issued its first report on the Ebola response, saying that this has been the biggest and worst Ebola epidemic ever-seen in history, and that many delays and obstacles hindered the response.

According to the report, the WHO procedures and policies aimed at coping with situations of this kind were not activated on time; mainly because the organization took too long in declaring the outbreak in West Africa a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, type 3.

The Organization is lacking “a solid capacity or culture to deal with emergency situations,” but also failed, before August 2014, “to properly look for the support of other UN agencies or humanitarian actors,” experts warned.

However, they recognized that, once aware of the problem’s magnitude, the WHO pushed for a global response that has helped to noticeably reduce the estimated impact of the Ebola crisis on West Africa.

The United Nations has repeatedly extolled the international community’s role in providing local authorities with human and material resources to fight the virus.

Even though local funeral traditions, customs, and post-conflict scenarios in countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone led to the rapid spread of the disease, wrong procedures, bureaucratic obstacles, among others, further complicated the situation.

Consequently, the WHO panel proposed a set of measures calling on the international community to take advantage of the experiences gained from the Ebola crisis.

These recommendations include reinforcing the collective action to face health crisis without disregarding the countries’ leading responsibility, and increasing the political and financial commitment of governments in coordination with the organization during emergency situations.

The panel also called for strengthening the WHO’s operational capacity and response efforts to help countries avoid diseases and improve their health systems, as well as to create a specialized organization to deal with health emergencies.

The revised International Health Regulations entered into force in 2007 but, according to the WHO, not all countries said they were prepared to comply with them.

In fact, only 64 of the 193 UN member countries had reported to have the ability to meet them.

The report was debated during the 68th World Health Assembly held in Geneva a few weeks ago.

The WHO Assistant Director General, Marie-Paule Kieny, highlighted the importance of the report with regard to improving the response to future public health events.

If an event like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa ever occurs again, the world must be better prepared to face it, she said during a two-day forum held in Geneva, where the WHO panel report was made known.

The current world panorama marked by frequent travel, world trade, and country-tocountry connections, as well as specific and general vulnerabilities allow for the rapid spread of epidemics, Kieny stressed.

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