The Ebola Outbreak: Catalyzing a “Shift” in Global Health Governance? by Tim K. Mackey

BMC Infectious Diseases



As the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak (EVD) transitions to its post-endemic phase, its impact on the future of global public health, particularly the World Health Organization (WHO), is the subject of continued debate. Criticism of WHO’s performance grew louder in the outbreak’s wake, placing this international health UN-specialized agency in the difficult position of navigating a complex series of reform recommendations put forth by different stakeholders. Decisions on WHO governance reform and the broader role of the United Nations could very well shape the future landscape of 21st century global health and how the international community responds to health emergencies.


In order to better understand the implications of the EVD outbreak on global health and infectious disease governance, this debate article critically examines a series of reports issued by four high-level commissions/panels convened to specifically assess WHO’s performance post-Ebola. Collectively, these recommendations add increasing complexity to the urgent need for WHO reform, a process that the agency must carry out in order to maintain its legitimacy. Proposals that garnered strong support included the formation of an independent WHO Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, the urgent need to increase WHO infectious disease funding and capacity, and establishing better operational and policy coordination between WHO, UN agencies, and other global health partners. The recommendations also raise more fundamental questions about restructuring the global health architecture, and whether the UN should play a more active role in global health governance.


Despite the need for a fully modernized WHO, reform proposals recently announced by WHO fail to achieve the “evolution” in global health governance needed in order to ensure that global society is adequately protected against the multifaceted and increasingly complex nature of modern public health emergencies. Instead, the lasting legacy of the EVD outbreak may be its foreshadowing of a governance “shift” in formal sharing of the complex responsibilities of global health, health security, outbreak response, and managing health emergencies to other international structures, most notably the United Nations. Only time will tell if the legacy of EVD will include a WHO that has the full support of the international community and is capable of leading human society in this brave new era of the globalization of infectious diseases.


Ebola virus disease Global health governance WHO reform International Health Regulations Global health security agenda

BMC Infectious DiseasesBMC series – open, inclusive and trusted 201616:699

DOI: 10.1186/s12879-016-2016-y

Received: 8 June 2016

Accepted: 10 November 2016

Published: 24 November 2016

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