Study: IMF policies fueled Ebola spread

Tough debt repayment policies at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) helped fuel Ebola's spread in West Africa by lowering countries' focus on healthcare spending, three British professors charge in a new study.

Researchers with three top universities said Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone did not adequately invest in their healthcare systems as they sought to repay IMF loans. The countries followed IMF austerity programs for between seven and 21 years each, the report stated.

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The study, published in The Lancet Global Health journal, is the latest attempt to assess how the Ebola epidemic overtook major regions of West Africa this year, with more than 20,000 people infected as of Dec. 29.

"The IMF aims to become part of the solution to the crisis … Yet, could it be that the IMF had contributed to the circumstances that enabled the crisis to arise in the first place?" the study states.

The IMF denied that the terms of its loans to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone hampered social spending, noting data that pointed to improved health outcomes in those countries. Health spending has also increased as a percentage of GDP in the region, the IMF said.

"The fact is that Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia were doing relatively well trying to overcome years of instability as they emerged from conflict, including civil wars that claimed tens of thousands of lives and had a devastating impact on social infrastructure," Sanjeev Gupta, deputy director of the IMF Fiscal Affairs Department, wrote in a statement online.

"The arrival of Ebola put severe pressure on already fragile infrastructure and health care systems. The IMF recognized the urgency of the situation — and moved quickly to help," he continued. "The IMF made available an additional $130 million to the three countries to fight Ebola."

The study was authored by Alexander Kentikelenis and Lawrence King of Cambridge University; Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and David Stuckler of Oxford University.

—This post was updated at 4:52 p.m. with Gupta's statement.