World is ‘not prepared to cope’ in the face of global health threats, WHO chief warns

Margaret Chan, the outgoing director-general World Health Organization. (Credit: U.S. Mission in Geneva/flickr)

Zika, Ebola, MERS coronavirus and yellow fever have shown that the world is not prepared to deal with the rapid spread of infectious diseases, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday. Margaret Chan opened the 69th World Health Assembly with remarks that underscored the many gaps that exist as an unprecedented series of global health challenges continue to evolve.

“Let me give you a stern warning. What we are seeing now looks more and more like a dramatic resurgence of the threat from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” said Chan in a speech delivered to open the event. “The world is not prepared to cope.”

Late last week, the WHO confirmed that more than 7,500 people in the West African country of Cape Verde had been infected by the same strain of the Zika virus spreading across the Americas. At least three babies developed microencephaly as a result. It is expected that the mosquito-borne virus will spread to parts of Europe and the U.S. as the warm summer weather makes for more mosquito-friendly conditions.

Chan said the failure to achieve universal access to family planning and what she called a “massive policy failure that dropped the ball” on controlling mosquitoes in the 1970s is to blame for the spread of Zika. Looking ahead, the WHO must enact reforms that will improve responses to crises and better support countries as they prepare for the unexpected.

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The WHO was roundly criticized for its slow response to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that killed more than 11,000 people. Disjointed communication and the inability to internally coordinate hampered the ability of the U.N. health body to support countries already severely lacking in health-care services and professionals. Chan admitted the WHO’s failings and has sought reforms to prevent the same mistakes from happening again, before her term as head of the organization ends next year.

Her words are prescient given the near certainty that Zika will be an oft-uttered word in the U.S. in coming months. Ron Klain, the former U.S. Ebola czar, warned in a commentary in the Washington Post that Zika is coming and the U.S. is not ready. His plea was focused on garnering funds to meet the woefully underfunded White House request, but also carries the hope that people will take the threat more seriously.

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“It is not a question of whether babies will be born in the United States with Zika-related microcephaly – it is a question of when and how many,” wrote Klain. “For years to come, these children will be a visible, human reminder of the cost of absurd wrangling in Washington, of preventable suffering, of a failure of our political system to respond to the threat that infectious diseases pose. … The Zika-spreading mosquitoes are not going to wait to learn what a conference committee has decided on the Hill. Summer is coming, and Zika will be tagging along with it.”

Nor will the mosquitoes wait for the World Health Assembly to catapult the WHO reforms championed by Chan. By making an appeal to the global nature of emerging health threats, Chan hopes to find a way to galvanize action for prevention when the natural tendency is to wait for the next crisis.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.