The Slatest

WHO Delayed Calling Ebola an Emergency Because Declaration “Could Be Seen as a Hostile Act”

Guinean President Alpha Conde.

Cellou Binani/Getty

An AP story on the World Health Organization’s response to the 2014 outbreak of the West African Ebola crisis says the group waited two months to describe the virus’ spread as a “global emergency” after workers on the ground suggested such a designation—and says the WHO is still dissembling about the timing of the declaration today.

The WHO delayed an “emergency” announcement, the AP says, because it feared the potential economic consequences for countries involved. WHO staff downplayed the significance of the outbreak shortly after accounts of it began to appear in the press:

Spokesman Gregory Hartl told reporters in early April that “this outbreak isn’t different from previous outbreaks.” In a twitter message sent by Hartl — and preserved by Britain’s ITV News — he is shown asking: “You want to disrupt the economic life of a country, a region (because) of 130 suspect and confirmed cases?”

The disease continued to spread, and medical workers on the ground suggested making the “global emergency” declaration in early June—when the outbreak was already the largest Ebola crisis ever. But WHO officials such as Dr. Sylvie Briand, who later described the designation as a “death warrant” for countries in which it’s declared, were hesitant.

On June 10, Briand, her boss Dr. Keiji Fukuda and others sent a memo to WHO chief Chan, noting that cases might soon pop up in Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau. But it went on to say that declaring an international emergency or even convening an emergency committee to discuss the issue “could be seen as a hostile act.”

Chan said recently at a London event that “the first sign that West Africa’s Ebola crisis might become a global emergency came in late July.”

The declaration was finally made in early August, and the delay may have cost a number of lives, the AP suggests, as many outside groups sent significant aid only after the WHO raised the alarm.

After WHO declared the international emergency. U.S. President Barack Obama ordered up to 3,000 troops to West Africa and promised to build more than a dozen 100-bed field hospitals. Britain and France also pledged to build Ebola clinics; China sent a 59-person lab team and Cuba sent more than 400 health workers.

More than 10,200 people have died thus far in the outbreak.