Experts call for immediate reform of WHO after inadequate response to Ebola exposes failings

LONDON (Reuters) - Experts called on Tuesday for urgent, root-and-branch changes to the World Health Organization (WHO) after an inadequate response to West Africa's vast and deadly Ebola outbreak.

The United Nations agency "does not currently possess the capacity or organizational culture to deliver a full emergency public health response", a panel of independent experts said in a report on the handling of the Ebola crisis.

The panel recommended that a US$100 million (S$135 million) contingency fund, suggested by WHO to support emergency responses in future, be fully financed by member states.

"This is a defining moment for the health of the global community," the report said. "(The) WHO must re-establish its pre-eminence as the guardian of global public health. This will require significant changes."

The Geneva-based WHO has been widely criticised for its response to the Ebola epidemic - which killed more than 11,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone - and for its early assurances that the disease was under control despite repeated warnings to the contrary by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan, who has led the agency since January 2007, admitted in May it had been "overwhelmed" by the Ebola epidemic and "ought to have reacted far earlier".

The experts also stressed that the 2005 International Health Regulations, agreed by 196 WHO member countries to try to track and control the spread of disease, must be strengthened and properly implemented to allow proper handling of epidemics.

"The world simply cannot afford another period of inaction until the next health crisis," it said.

The 2005 International Health Regulations were reviewed and changes recommended in 2011 after the 2009/2010 H1N1 flu pandemic, the panel said, but many countries have not acted on that review - a failure that made the Ebola response even worse.

"Had the recommendations for revision made in 2011 by the Review Committee in relation to Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 been implemented, the global community would have been in a far better position to face the Ebola crisis," the report said.