Internal emails and documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the World Health Organization resisted sounding the international alarm over West Africa's Ebola epidemic for two months.
WHO acknowledges being slow but has blamed its response partly on the surprising characteristics of the Ebola outbreak, the worst ever with more than 10,000 believed dead.
The documents show that WHO officials were informed of the dire situation early and received an urgent plea for help. Documents also show that senior staff privately floated the idea of declaring an international health emergency over the disease's spread in early June, two months before the declaration was finally made on Aug. 8.
Declaring an emergency was "a last resort," Dr. Sylvie Briand, who runs WHO's pandemic and epidemic diseases department, said in a June 5 email to a colleague who floated the idea. "It may be more efficient to use other diplomatic means for now."
Five days after Briand's email, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan was sent a memo that warned cases might soon appear in Mali, Ivory Coast and Guinea Bissau. But it went on to say that declaring an international emergency or even convening a committee to discuss it "could be seen as a hostile act."
Critics and former WHO staff dismiss that reasoning. "That's like saying you don't want to call the fire department because you're afraid the trucks will create a disturbance," said Michael Osterholm, a prominent infectious diseases expert at the University of Minnesota.
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