Ebola’s Lessons

How the WHO Mishandled the Crisis

Protective suits are left to dry after an Ebola training session held by Spain's Red Cross in Madrid, October 29, 2014. Susana Vera / Reuters

In a biological sense, last year’s Ebola epidemic, which struck West Africa, spilled over into the United States and Europe, and has to date led to more than 27,000 infections and more than 11,000 deaths, was a great surprise. Local health and political leaders did not know of the presence of the hemorrhagic fever virus in the 35,000-square-mile Guinea Forest Region, and no human cases had ever been identified in the region prior to the outbreak. Its appearance in the tiny Guinean village of Meliandou in December 2013 went unnoticed, save as a domestic tragedy for the Ouamouno family, who lost their toddler son Emile to a mysterious fever. Practically all the nonbiological aspects of the crisis, however, were entirely unsurprising, as the epidemic itself and the fumbling response to it played out with deeply frustrating predictability. The world has seen these mistakes before.

Humanity’s first known encounter with Ebola occurred in 1976, with an outbreak in the village of Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and surrounding areas. A horrible unknown disease suddenly started causing internal bleeding, high fevers, sometimes hallucinations and deranged behavior, and often death; it was eventually named Ebola after a nearby river. Back then, science lacked today’s tool kit for the rapid identification and genetic analysis of viruses, not to mention meaningful antivirus treatments, biotechnology, sophisticated HAZMAT suits, and cell phones. Considerable courage, combined with a fair amount of swagger and medical savvy, was the key trait of the couple of dozen foreigners who swooped in to assist the local disease fighters. Most were veterans of battles against other microbes, such as smallpox or yellow fever, but had not previously worked together. Karl Johnson, a virologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), took charge, and the multinational group operated as a team of rivals, jockeying for their respective institutional or national stature in the loosely governed investigation. 

Conducting its work under the brutal dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, the

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