GENEVA — Dr. Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, said Monday that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has progressed from a public health crisis to “a crisis for international peace and security.”
“I have never seen a health event threaten the very survival of societies and governments in already very poor countries,’’ said Chan, who dealt with the 2009 avian flu pandemic and the SARS outbreaks of 2002-03.
Chan made the statement in remarks delivered on her behalf at a regional health conference in Manila.
More than 4,000 people have died from the Ebola virus, all but a handful of them in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, according to WHO estimates issued last week. Chan declined to update those figures, saying they are still rising “exponentially.”
Instead, Chan drew a number of lessons from the outbreak. Most notably, she emphasized “the dangers of the world’s growing social and economic inequalities.”
“The rich get the best care,” she said. “The poor are left to die.”
‘‘We are seeing, right now, how this virus can disrupt economies and societies around the world,’’ she said, but added that adequately educating the public would help governments prevent economic disruptions.
Kanayo Nwanze, president of United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, said Monday that there are already food shortages in Senegal and other countries in West Africa because farms have been abandoned and regional trade has been disrupted.
Ebola emerged 40 years ago, and, Chan said, there were no vaccines or other remedies because it has traditionally been confined to poor African countries. A profit-driven pharmaceutical industry had no incentive to make products for countries that could not pay, she said.
The risks of neglecting health care in developing countries are global, Chan said, adding that “when a deadly and dreaded virus hits the destitute and spirals out of control, the whole world is put at risk.”
Moreover, she said, inadequate health care means that the kind of shocks the world is experiencing with greater frequency — including extreme weather events resulting from climate change, armed conflict, or “a disease run wild” — could “bring a fragile country to its knees.”
A second lesson drawn from the crisis was that “rumors and panic are spreading faster than the virus, and this costs money,” Chan said, noting a World Bank estimate that 90 percent of the economic costs of any outbreak “come from irrational and disorganized efforts of the public to avoid infection.”
The final message she wanted to deliver, however, was that “the world is ill-prepared to respond to any severe, sustained, and threatening public health emergency.”
The international health regulations review committee of WHO had reached that conclusion five years ago after the avian flu pandemic, Chan said, and the Ebola virus outbreak showed that it was “spot on.”
France and other European countries are considering following the lead of the United States and Britain to start screening passengers arriving from West African countries hit hardest by the outbreak.
The French presidency said in a statement Monday that Francois Hollande discussed the possibility of starting screening passengers from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone during a phone call with President Obama, the Associated Press reported.
France will also accept a request by Guinean authorities to set up additional Ebola treatment centers, the presidency said. France is already building one center in Guinea.
In Brussels, the European Union announced health officials will hold a meeting on Thursday to see where they can cooperate better to contain the disease. EU spokesman Frederic Vincent said they would center on whether there is a need to check passengers at EU airports.
On Saturday US customs and health officials began taking the temperatures of passengers arriving at New York’s Kennedy International Airport from the three West African countries.
The screening is to expand to four additional US airports this week, and Britain has also said it will introduce ‘‘enhanced’’ screening of travelers for Ebola at Heathrow and Gatwick airports and Eurostar rail terminals.
In a separate development Monday, health workers reported for duty at Liberia’s hospitals, largely defying calls for a strike that could have further hampered the country’s ability to respond to the outbreak, the AP reported.
Nurses and other health workers — though not doctors — had threatened to strike if they did not receive the higher hazard pay they had been promised by the government. That would have made the already difficult care of Ebola patients even harder, since the bulk of the staff at clinics and hospitals is made of up of Liberia’s nurses, physician assistants, and community health workers.
The outbreak has also reduced access to health care for those with other diseases because many hospitals and clinics have shut, often because their staff are afraid to come to work or are not sufficiently trained to handle a patient with Ebola if one arrives.