6 experts tasked to assess WHO's Ebola response

Dame Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of Oxfam GB, will lead a panel that will assess the World Health Organization’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Photo by: Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

The World Health Organization has appointed six health experts to lead the assessment of its oft-criticized response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The decision, made by Director-General Margaret Chan and announced Tuesday, was among the first steps the agency has taken since member states adopted in January a resolution containing a slew of reforms aimed at ending the Ebola pandemic and strengthening WHO’s capacity to respond to future outbreaks and emergencies.

The assessment will look at “all aspects of WHO’s response” from the onset of the crisis and across the three levels of the organization — from headquarters down to regional and country levels — including how it coordinated the response, mobilized resources and how well it was able to follow its own emergency response framework.

Leading the panel is Dame Barbara Stocking, former chief executive of Oxfam GB and who now serves as president of Murray Edwards College, one of the few women-only colleges in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Stocking is widely known for her work at Oxfam, which spanned more than a decade, but she also had a long career focused on health, including holding senior management positions at the National Health Service, running a WHO Independent Commission on river blindness control in West Africa, as well as serving as chair of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response.

Joining her in the panel are equally well-regarded health care practitioners and experts, who at some point have been engaged with WHO.

Carmencita Alberto-Banatin most recently provided technical support to the aid agency in its response to the devastation brought forth by Typhoon Haiyan in southern Philippines. Julio Frenk, current dean of the faculty at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts, and T&G Angelopoulos Professor of Public Health and International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, once served as executive director of evidence and information for policy for WHO and among the popular contenders for the WHO director-general position in 2006, a role Chan secured the same year.

Ilona Kickbusch, current director of the global health program at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, served for almost two decades in different capacities at WHO. Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfun for his part currently serves as an adviser to WHO’s IHR Emergency Committee on Ebola. He had led several international committees concerning control of Ebola outbreaks in Gabon and his home country in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and was part of a WHO team that dealt with the first documented case of urban Ebola in DRC in 1995.

Faisal Shuaib, as head of Nigeria’s National Ebola Emergency Operations Center, meanwhile led the country’s response to the outbreak. Previously, he also coordinated several WHO activities in northern Nigeria.

How the panel plans to proceed with the assessment is expected to be unveiled in the coming days and weeks. But the biggest question is how significant the implications of their findings will be for WHO’s future. It’s unclear whether they will be expected to provide recommendations toward the end of the assessment. The first progress report is expected at the 68th World Health Assembly in May.

Other steps

Apart from the panel, member states have asked WHO to establish an IHR Review Committee panel of experts to find how WHO’s response under the International Health Regulations in future outbreaks can be improved.

They’ve also asked the U.N. health agency to consider the establishment of an ad hoc advisory group composed of operations experts that can provide administrative and logistical support to the director-general “as needed” in future outbreaks and emergencies, and for Chan to provide options on the size, scope and other important components of a contingency fund that will be decided upon at the May assembly.

In February, Chan appointed Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward as WHO’s special representative for the Ebola response. The global health body also announced Wednesday, March 11, a new partnership with the World Food Program in which the U.N. food agency will be utilizing its logistics capacity to help WHO get Ebola cases down to zero. This entails ensuring WHO disease detectives — medical specialists who track epidemics — have the equipment they need to share critical information and track the spread of the virus, as well as guarantee that social anthropologists and epidemiologists can reach isolated villages.

Aylward’s appointment and the new partnership are also in response to member states’ request in January. The latter is for WHO to find ways to strengthen its health emergency operations.

“The partnership is also a learning opportunity for the future, informing our capacities to launch joint operations during large-scale emergencies,” Chan said in a statement.

Which aspects of WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak do you think these experts need to focus on in their assessment? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.