Director-General's Office

WHO Director-General briefs UN General Assembly on Ebola

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Briefing to the United Nations General Assembly, New York, United States of America
13 January 2016

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me join the Secretary-General in thanking the General Assembly and its President for organizing this briefing.

The Ebola outbreak that has ravaged parts of West Africa for more than two years demonstrated the devastation that can follow when a deadly disease unexpectedly moves into new territory.

Since the beginning of 2014, more than 28,600 people were infected with the virus and more than 11,300 lives were lost in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The outbreak disrupted every aspect of life in these countries. Essential health services were interrupted. Markets closed and fields were left fallow. Mistrust, fear, and stigmatization reigned. Travel restrictions and reduced airline services isolated the countries further.

Economic growth throughout the region suffered a severe setback.

On the positive side, the outbreak demonstrated the power of international solidarity.

Support came from national authorities, heroic health care workers from affected countries and around the world, religious and community leaders, civil society, numerous national, regional, and international organizations, and a host of generous governments. So much was needed. So much was done.

The pharmaceutical industry was part of this solidarity. Thanks to industry’s rapid and committed engagement, clinical trials led by WHO have brought the world close to having its first safe and effective Ebola vaccine.

We have also developed new diagnostic tests that are making the detection of Ebola faster and more accurate.

As you have heard from the Secretary-General, we have made tremendous strides forward in defeating the largest, longest, and most complex Ebola outbreak in history.

At the peak of the outbreak, 15 months ago, more than 950 new cases were being reported every week.

We have now gone more than six weeks with no new cases.

Tomorrow, on 14 January, Liberia will be removed from the list of countries with on-going Ebola virus transmission. This marks the first time that all three countries have reported zero cases for at least 42 days, which is twice the incubation period.

This is a monumental achievement. Every chain of transmission had to be detected and broken. Thousands of suspected cases were tracked down, tested, and treated. Tens of thousands of contacts were traced and monitored for 21 days.

All health care staff had to follow rigorous procedures to prevent the spread, to themselves and others, of one of the deadliest pathogens on earth. You have all seen images of the protective clothing and equipment they needed.

All burials had to be safe. All communities had to be fully engaged, even when cooperation meant going against centuries-old cultural beliefs and religious practices.

To do all this in countries with weak public health infrastructures, limited resources, poor communication and transportation systems, and many pockets of infection in remote rural areas involved what is likely the most intense logistical operation against an infectious disease since smallpox was pushed down to its last case in the Horn of Africa in 1979.

My own Organization, WHO, maintained more than 1,200 staff in 70 field sites throughout 2015. This was an enormous effort that drew resources from every part of WHO.

However, as these countries broke the original chains of transmission, a new residual risk emerged. Evidence shows that the virus can persist in some survivors even after full recovery.

Since March of last year, WHO has documented ten flare-ups of infection that were not part of the original outbreak. These very small incidents followed the reintroduction of virus persisting in survivors.

The good news is that countries immediately and rapidly stopped each of these flares. Equally reassuring, research shows that casual contact with survivors poses no risk to their families.

Vigilance and response capacity must be maintained throughout 2016. By the end of this year, we expect that all survivors will have cleared the virus.

The next three months are the most critical, as national emergency response mechanisms and partners scale down or close their operations. Responsibility for managing survivor care, surveillance, and the response to further possible flares will shift back to ministries of health.

While the risk of new flares is rapidly declining, these countries continue to need international solidarity to ensure a safe transition and sufficient national response capacity. National leadership is outstanding.

The period of intense vigilance will continue as recovery proceeds. Strong recovery plans, developed by each of the three governments, will make their health systems more resilient, leaving them better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to future outbreaks.

We are grateful to participants at last July’s International Recovery Conference in New York for their generous support. Ebola delivered an extremely severe and shattering blow to societies and economies.

Recovery will take some time. While the job is by no means finished, no one anticipates that the situation will return to what we were seeing 15 months ago.

The determination is fierce. The many steps taken at national and international levels have had a decisive impact. No one will let this virus take off and run away again.

Thank you.