Ebola epidemic response exposes weakness in U.S. preparedness

The Heritage Foundation said in a recent report that American and international responses to the recent Ebola epidemic exposed weaknesses in the United States' preparedness to deal with major pandemics.

While the World Health Organization has identified many of the problems found in its handling of the Ebola crisis, many of America’s faults remain unaddressed.

The Heritage Foundation report comes after it created a task force to examine the U.S. response to Ebola in West Africa and domestically. It offers recommendations aimed at improving the quality and speed of future responses to pandemics, and acts of bioterrorism.

The report recommended improvements in health care for developing countries, stronger lines of authority and narrower priorities for the WHO, prioritizing preparedness and planning, and finally empowering officials charged with the response effort.

The foundation found that politicians were unprepared to deal with pandemics, citing specifically the position of special assistant to the president for biodefense policy, which had been eliminated before the need for an integrated response to the Ebola epidemic.

The reimplementation of the special assistant and the development of an integrated, multilevel governmental approach to epidemics were major recommendations of the panel.

The foundation also raised the question of what the role was of the assistant secretary of health and human services for preparedness response during the epidemic.

That position was created by Congress following the response to Hurricane Katrina where it was found that such a position was necessary for health care response to major events. Empowering the assistant secretary to respond to situations such as Ebola isn’t only prudent; it is precisely why the position exists.

The Heritage Foundation recently hosted a panel discussion to address themes in the report. The panel raised concerns that while the WHO is responding to its failings in the Ebola epidemic, the reforms it has identified have not yet been implemented. Ensuring the implementation of reforms must be a priority going forward.

“Ultimately the WHO was slow to respond,” Charlotte Florance, an Africa and Middle East policy analyst with the foundation, said. “But when it was forced to act, the agency was woefully unprepared to coordinate the international community’s response.”

In large part, it is due to the scope the organization has taken. “Beyond this emergency preparedness component of the WHO for epidemics, in recent years the WHO has expanded its areas of focus and spread limited resources more thinly,” Florance added.

Narrowing its scope back to addressing its core competencies is an important step for the WHO to make to address epidemics in the future.

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