With nearly 5,000 dead of Ebola in West Africa, the World Health Organization elected a new director Wednesday of its Africa office, which has been accused of bungling the response to the outbreak in its early stages.
The new chief, Matshidiso Moeti, is a doctor from Botswana and a WHO veteran who stepped down as deputy director for Africa in March, the same month the crisis was announced.
The results of the five-candidate election were made public at a meeting of the U.N. agency in Benin and came amid the worst outbreak of the dreaded disease ever seen.
“I hope, with all the control efforts that are now in place, the situation will have improved by the time I take office in February,” Moeti told reporters.
She said that the health systems in hard-hit Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been devastated and need to be rebuilt and that warning systems and monitoring capabilities must be improved ahead of any future Ebola outbreak.
In an internal draft document obtained by The Associated Press last month, WHO accused its Africa office of initially botching the response to Ebola, deriding many of its regional staff members as “politically motivated appointments.” The report said WHO staff in Africa refused to help get visas for outside experts and compromised the containment effort in other ways.
The outgoing regional director, Dr. Luis Sambo of Angola, is completing his second five-year term and was ineligible to run again. He has declined numerous interview requests.
In a report on lessons learned, released ahead of this week’s meeting, the Africa office attributed the explosive spread of the lethal virus to such factors as poor awareness and badly trained health workers.
Aboubakar Sidiki Diakite, inspector general for Guinea’s health ministry, welcomed the election as an opportunity for reform.
“A change always brings new impetus,” he told the AP in Paris this week. He said the new director would find “weaknesses” in the system that need to be remedied.
Representatives of WHO’s 47 African member countries voted by secret ballot for the regional director.
In her campaign brochure, Moeti listed one of her priorities as building a responsive, effective WHO. Moeti previously held posts in Botswana’s Health Ministry and also led WHO’s Malawi office.
The circumstances of her departure as Sambo’s deputy back in March were not immediately clear.
In other developments, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $6.2 billion in emergency funds to fight Ebola in West Africa and strengthen U.S. defenses against the disease.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization said Wednesday that 4,818 deaths now have been reported from Ebola, and that every district of Sierra Leone and Liberia has been affected.
The situation this past week was particularly dire in Sierra Leone, with 435 new confirmed cases. Treatment centers are urgently needed there, and one built by Britain finally opened outside the capital of Freetown on Wednesday.
The center in Kerry Town includes an 80-bed facility to be managed by Save the Children and a 12-bed unit for infected health care workers. This smaller one will be staffed by British army medics.
A U.S.-built facility in Liberia for health care is scheduled to open to patients on Saturday.
Britain’s Department for International Development said there are only 326 treatment beds in Sierra Leone – this, in a country that has routinely reported around 350 cases per week over the last several weeks.
That is worrying because the key to stemming the outbreak is getting sick people out of their homes and into treatment centers where they can no longer infect others.
WHO said 4,500 health workers are still needed. More than 500 health workers have become infected, reducing their ranks and making it difficult to recruit more.
Foreign medical workers who have been infected have been evacuated for high-quality treatment abroad.
A Ugandan man who became infected while working for an aid group in West Africa has “significantly improved” since arriving in Germany on Oct. 3 for treatment, the University Hospital Frankfurt said.
And a Spanish nursing assistant who recovered from Ebola was released Wednesday from a hospital in Madrid.
Cheng reported from London. Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin; Alan Clendenning and Ciaran Giles in Madrid; Jonathan Paye-Layleh in Monrovia, Liberia; Clarence Roy-Macaulay in Freetown, Sierra Leone; Angela Charlton in Paris; and Sarah DiLorenzo and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.