The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) was accused of failing to record cholera epidemics in his home country, fuelling a bitter row over the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the world health body he runs has become a target for American anger over the Covid-19 crisis. Donald Trump said last week he was looking at reducing US funding of the WHO and accused its leadership of being ‘very China-centric’ and that it “blew the pandemic response”.
The US administration, among others, has accused Beijing of concealing the extent of the spread of Covid-19 during the early stages of the outbreak. In contrast, Dr Tedros has praised China’s lockdown strategy and insisted it “bought time for the world”.
But allegations that Dr Tedros, 55, was ‘complicit’ in failing to identify and record cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia where he was health minister, threaten to give further ammunition to his critics.
Dr Tedros has strongly denied the claims and said he was a victim of a smear campaign amid allegations of dirty tricks and mud slinging in the run up to his election as WHO director general.
In succeeding to the post, Dr Tedros, who has a PhD from Nottingham University and an MSc from the University of London, is the most powerful health official on the planet.
In May 2017, however, questions were raised over his suitability for the WHO job by a global health expert, who in turn is now director of a WHO affiliated body. Dr Tedros was accused of refusing to record cholera epidemics in Ethiopia in three separate outbreaks in 2006, 2009 and 2011. He was the country’s health minister between 2005 and 2012 before being appointed foreign minister for four years until 2016.
Professor Larry Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law & Human Rights, told the New York Times in May 2017: “Dr Tedros is a compassionate and highly competent public health official. But he had a duty to speak truth to power and to honestly identify and report verified cholera outbreaks over an extended period.”
Prof Gostin reportedly told the newspaper that he feared the WHO might “might lose its legitimacy” if it was run by a representative of a country that itself covers up epidemics.
Critics of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak claim that Dr Tendros has not been sufficiently critical of Beijing, which denies any cover up.
Dr Tedros duly won the race to become WHO director general but months later was accused of being ‘complicit’ in another failure to record a cholera outbreak, this time in Sudan, which neighbours Ethiopia.
In September 2017, a group of US doctors specialising in infectious diseases, wrote an open letter to Dr Tedros accusing him and the WHO of wrongly refusing to classify a cholera outbreak in Sudan to protect its reputation on the world stage.
The doctors wrote: “Your silence about what is clearly a massive cholera epidemic in Sudan daily becomes more reprehensible. Your failure to transport stool samples from victims in Sudan to Geneva for official confirmation of cholera makes you fully complicit in the terrible suffering and dying that continues to spread, out of control, with daily new reports confirming that this is indeed a cholera epidemic.
"The inevitable history that will be written of this epidemic will surely cast you in an unforgiving light.”
Both the outbreaks in Ethiopia and in Sudan were classed as “acute watery diarrhea” rather than cholera. At the time it was alleged that by avoiding calling the epidemics ‘cholera’, Dr Tedros was protecting the burgeoning tourism industry in Ethiopia, where he went on to become foreign minister until 2016.
The WHO defended its handling of the Sudan outbreak, insisting that whatever the disease was called made no difference to its response.
Dr Tedros told the NY Times back in 2017 that he strongly denied the cover-up accusation. He said he was the victim of a ‘last-minute smear campaign’ to prevent him getting the world’s top health job and the outbreaks had been in remote areas of Ethiopia where laboratory testing “is difficult.”
The NY Times reported complaints that Ethiopian officials ‘are not telling the truth about these outbreaks’.
Professor Gostin, contacted by the The Telegraph last week, declined to comment further, explaining the interview “was a long time ago”.
To complicate matters further, Professor Gostin told the British Medical Journal that the NY Times report of his allegations was not accurate. “Dr Tedros was at the time minister of health, but he may well have pushed hard to accurately report to WHO but was overruled by the [Ethiopian] government,” he said.
Prof Gostin went on to praise Dr Tedros for “an unparalleled track record as minister of health in Ethiopia” including reforms of the health system.
But he said he had two concerns about the appointment: “Firstly, the Ethiopian government has a dismal record of human rights abuses,” he said.
“Secondly, the government did not fully and honestly report several cholera outbreaks, which could have slowed the international response.
"These concerns would melt away if early in his tenure Tedros were to enthusiastically support human rights and the right to health, and raise his voice in favour of transparent and accurate disease reporting at the country level.”
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