Harvard panel slams WHO over slow response to Ebola outbreak in West Africa

A slow international response coupled with a failure of leadership was to blame for the "needless suffering and death" caused by the recent Ebola epidemic, according to an independent panel of global health experts.

According to the report of the panel published in The Lancet, major reforms were needed to prevent future disasters.

The outbreak which began in 2013 left 11,000 people dead.

The World Health Organisation had outlined plans for reform. The worst affected countries were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. According to the independent group of experts, convened by The Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, these countries were unable to detect, report and respond rapidly to outbreaks - something which allowed Ebola to develop into "a worldwide crisis".

The World Health Organisation, however, came in for the most severe criticism for being slow to declare Ebola an international public health emergency - five months after Guinea and Liberia had notified it of outbreaks.

The WHO had also failed to meet its responsibilities for responding to the outbreak due to lack of leadership and accountability, the report added.

The panel, convened by Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, called for extensive reform in the way infectious diseases are managed around the world, even as it slammed WHO.

"The most egregious failure was by WHO in the delay in sounding the alarm," said Ashish K Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, CNN reported. "People at WHO were aware that there was an Ebola outbreak that was getting out of control by spring...and yet, it took until August to declare a public health emergency. The cost of the delay was enormous," Jha said.

Meanwhile, WHO told the Wall Street Journal, "A number of its (the panel's) recommendations cover work that is already being done - including steps set in place by WHO in early 2015. It is gratifying to see that there is consensus of thought on many of these key issues, but some will need further review and discussion."