World / Europe

WHO denies politics swayed Ebola emergency declaration

(Agencies) Updated: 2015-03-24 09:52

LONDON - The World Health Organization denied Monday that politics swayed the decision to declare an international emergency over the spread of the Ebola virus last year, despite evidence senior staffers repeatedly discussed the diplomatic and economic fallout of such a move.

A year after WHO declared that Ebola had been found in Guinea, the agency is on the defensive over reports that it dragged its feet when raising the international alarm over the disease. Internal communications published last week documented senior agency staff discouraging the move about two months before the international alert was finally raised, citing diplomatic relations, mining interests and the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

WHO spokeswoman Dr. Margaret Harris said Monday that "political considerations did not play a role" and that notions to the contrary were due to a misinterpretation of the leaked documents.

Political worries appear to loom large in the communications, which include emails and memoranda. A June 10 memo sent to WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says declaring an emergency - or convening a committee to discuss the issue - could be seen as a "hostile act" by Ebola-affected countries. When senior African staff floated the idea of declaring an emergency on June 4, WHO official Dr. Sylvie Briand wrote that she saw such a move as a "last resort."

An international emergency was eventually declared on Aug. 8, by which point nearly 1,000 people had died.

Ebola was judged to have become a health emergency with international implications nearly a month earlier by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

"I activated the emergency operations center at the CDC on July 9," said Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director, meaning the agency moved immediately to put the organization's full weight behind efforts to curb Ebola in mid-July.

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