The United Nations agency reduced its concentration on emerging infectious diseases since the SARS epidemic of 2003. Non-governmental donations, from wealthy individuals and corporations, have similarly declined since.
WHO received "literally hundreds of millions (from donors) because their businesses were affected," said Dr. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank and a former WHO director, "but as SARS burned out, those guys disappeared, and we forgot very quickly."
After the global recession, the organization cut $1 billion from its two-year budget, now at $3.98 billion, and more emphasis was placed on fighting chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. Its unit dedicated to pandemic diseases, including SARS and Ebola at its Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters, was reduced to only 52 people, a separate emergency response unit was reduced from 94 to 34 and only three regional emergency outbreak specialists remained in Africa, down from 12.
The Ebola virus is responsible for the deaths of nearly 2,000 people in west Africa since December 2013.
WHO Director Dr. Margaret Chan recounted in a New York Times interview that it was a fantasy to believe the organization could be regarded as a fast-strike first responder to deadly outbreaks of disease.
"There's no doubt we've not been as quick and as powerful as we might have been," said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director general.