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World Health Organization Considers Measures To Quicken Outbreak Response


The World Health Organization admits that mistakes were made and the agency could have done a better job during the Ebola outbreak. More than 25,000 people have been infected in West Africa, and the outbreak still isn't over. At the agency's annual meeting this week, WHO is set to adopt a handful of measures to make sure what happened with Ebola doesn't happen again. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff takes a look at whether it's enough to stop the next big outbreak.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Many groups have criticized the WHO for being too slow to recognize the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak. And after they did declare an emergency, the epidemic was out of control, and the agency didn't have the money or the people to fight it. Lawrence Gostin is a global law professor at Georgetown University. He says the goal of these new measures is to help WHO respond faster to outbreaks, be more nimble on the grounds. To do that, Gostin says, the agency is planning two concrete steps. First, WHO will create an emergency medical troop.

LAWRENCE GOSTIN: It's almost like an international fire brigade. An epidemic breaks out, and then immediately an international workforce is deployed to try to bring it under control.

DOUCLEFF: This workforce would be made up of hundreds of doctors, nurses and scientists scattered across the world. They'd all be trained and ready to drop whatever they're doing and rush to an outbreak. The second step is an emergency fund - $100 million set aside for WHO to use to fight an outbreak. Gostin says this type of fund is sorely needed, but $100 million pales in comparison to the billions spent on the Ebola response.

GOSTIN: You know, I think it is a step forward, but it's far from adequate.

DOUCLEFF: Also, that emergency fund can't be used to pay for the medical troop, so these workers will be volunteers, and it's still unknown who will pay their airfare, lodging or evacuation if something goes wrong.

GOSTIN: There are a lot of ideas, but not a lot of deep, structural changes and new money.

DOUCLEFF: And even if WHO does figure out the money situation, Gostin says many health leaders are doubtful the agency can actually pull this off - that the WHO can train and organize an emergency medical troop and get them to an outbreak fast.

GOSTIN: Because they did such a bad job with all of that with Ebola, and there were horrible problems.

DOUCLEFF: For instance, some medical workers were ready to go to West Africa, but had to wait for visas. Sometimes, equipment sat at docks, useless because of red tape. Dr. Margaret Harris is a spokesperson for the Ebola team at the WHO. She admits that the response to Ebola was slowed by logistical barriers.

MARGARET HARRIS: Logistics is always a problem in any outbreak response.

DOUCLEFF: But, she says, WHO has a plan to fix that. It will partner with other UN agencies who are good at getting people and equipment into countries fast, such as the World Food Program. Harris says, though, the details for these partnerships and the funding for the medical troop are still up in the air.

HARRIS: What we've got today is very much an outline. It needs to be fleshed out. We are still struggling with our current Ebola outbreak to get the funding to continue the work we need to do now.

DOUCLEFF: So the WHO will have the ability to create a new emergency response system, but these large issues remain. How do they fund parts of it, and how do they easily move medical workers around the globe? Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.