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Ebola: UN health agency urges better global preparedness against future outbreaks

25 January 2015 – The Ebola outbreak is "clearly" in retreat throughout the affected countries of West Africa but the continuing emergency response shows the need for urgent changes so that "never again should the world be caught by surprise," the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) told a special meeting on Ebola today.

Speaking in Geneva to the UN agency's Special Session of the Executive Board on Ebola, WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, emphasized the importance of maintaining momentum in the fight against the deadly virus and guarding against complacency while also delineating a set of recommendations for future large-scale and sustained outbreaks and emergencies.

"The Ebola outbreak points to the need for urgent change in three main areas," Dr. Chan told those gathered. "To rebuild and strengthen national and international emergency preparedness and response, to address the way new medical products are brought to market, and to strengthen the way WHO operates during emergencies."

Above all, she said, the Ebola outbreak had revealed "some inadequacies and shortcomings" in the WHO's administrative, managerial, and technical infrastructures, including the need for "a dedicated contingency fund" to support rapid responses to outbreaks and emergencies; "streamlined recruitment procedures" in order to increase the agency's personnel base; the application of a "one WHO" approach in which all levels of the agency use "the same standard operating procedures, tools, and frameworks for risk assessment, monitoring, and accountability during emergencies" and need to enhance crisis management and field experience during emergencies in WHO country offices.

Echoing these points, UN Special Envoy for Ebola, Dr. David Nabarro, conveyed a message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reinforcing the call to draw lessons from this outbreak for the future. In addition, he urged Member States to ensure that the WHO has the resources it needs to end Ebola transmission and build structures for future pandemics.

Meanwhile, Dr. Chan celebrated the international community's ongoing efforts to stamp out the virus in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone but warned that reaching zero cases in the three affected countries was "not going to be easy."

The United Nations has, in fact, launched an appeal for the $1 billion needed for the first six months of 2015 in order to sustain the momentum in combatting the disease. Nearly 22,000 people have been affected by the disease with more than 8,600 deaths.

The WHO head noted, however, that despite the devastation left in its wake, the 2014 Ebola crisis also presented "an opportunity to build a stronger system to defend our collective global health security," adding that health systems around the world need adequate numbers of well-trained and appropriately paid health care workers.

"This is one of the biggest lessons the world learned last year," she continued. "Well-functioning health systems are not a luxury. Well-functioning health systems are the cushion that keeps sudden shocks from reverberating throughout the fabric that holds societies together, ripping them apart."

"The volatile microbial world will always deliver surprises," Dr. Chan concluded. "Never again should the world be caught by surprise, unprepared."

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