WHO DG Chan: Organization is “determined to change”

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“In a profoundly interconnected world, there is no such thing as a local outbreak . . .”

Noting the continuing impacts of Ebola in West Africa, the spread of Zika virus in the Americas, the appearance of MERS in Asia, and the global rise of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, including ones of epidemic potential, World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan described some of the changes needed in the organization she leads, and its readiness and responses to health threats across the world in her address to the agency’s executive board this morning.

Citing findings she called “frank, critical and thorough” from an advisory group assembled last July, Chan voiced commitment to a creating a new program charged with managing health emergencies. While she did not elaborate on how it would address systemic and top-down weaknesses across the agency that were highlighted in WHO’s delayed response to the Ebola crisis, Chan cited the group’s second report which she said presented what was “needed . . . and widely regarded as the right direction to take,”  and which called for a program that has independence, accountability and a direct line of communication to the highest level of WHO leadership. Similarly a panel assembled by Harvard’s Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine cited the need at the WHO for an entity specifically responsible for outbreak responses, as well as some of the other reforms Chan cited today, including improved national capacities and adherence to International Health Regulations. The Harvard/LSHTM panel also recommends reforms to WHO governance and leadership.

“The lessons from Ebola must be applied,” Chan said today.

But when she asked “Has the world lost its moral compass?” she was referring to siege tactics during war (“Even wars have laws,” she added), while leaving unexplored the thinking that allowed the spread of a deadly virus across three capital cities in Africa, and into a fourth and most heavily populated capital, before noting that a crisis of international concern had been ongoing for months.

And when she added that “Ebola taught the world that an outbreak in any part of the world can have global repercussions,” the question remains how that lesson went unlearned before.

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