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WHO Calls for Action to Tackle Threat of Emerging Diseases

  • Lisa Schlein

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the delegates during the WHO Executive Board meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2016.

World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan addresses the delegates during the WHO Executive Board meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 25, 2016.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, is calling for rapid action to tackle the growing threat of emerging diseases. At the opening of the agency’s week-long Executive Committee session, the WHO chief warned some major global health threats will demand urgent, collaborative action in the months ahead.

Chan appeared chastened when she told some 1,000 delegates attending the meeting that hard lessons have been learned from the Ebola epidemic, which has killed more than 11,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

WHO was slow off the mark in addressing this unprecedented outbreak, causing the deadly virus to wreak havoc in West Africa and cause panic around the world before measures to contain the disease were fully implemented.

Reform

After a lot of soul searching and advice from experts, WHO has begun a reform process. Dr. Chan said she is determined to change the way the WHO responds to outbreaks and emergencies.

“Ebola taught the world that an outbreak in any part of the world can have global repercussions…In a profoundly interconnected world, there is no such thing as a local outbreak and there is no such thing as a faraway war. As some assessments of the Ebola response have concluded, having strong public health infrastructures and capabilities in place in vulnerable countries is the first line of defense against the infectious disease threat,” said Dr. Chan.

FILE - Health worker and Ebola survivor from Sierra Leone Mme Rebecca Johnson cries after addressing the media during a special meeting on Ebola at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Jan. 25, 2015.

FILE - Health worker and Ebola survivor from Sierra Leone Mme Rebecca Johnson cries after addressing the media during a special meeting on Ebola at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Jan. 25, 2015.

In the wake of Ebola, Chan said health officials are more alert to alarming signals coming from the microbial world. She cited the devastation caused by last year’s MERS outbreak in Korea, a country with an advanced health system.

Tackling emerging diseases

She said tackling emerging diseases becomes even more problematic in developing and emerging economies. She warns of the explosive spread of Zika virus to new geographical areas, with little population immunity. Zika is a mosquito-borne disease that is believed to cause neurological problems in newly born babies.

Chan flagged antimicrobial resistance as a danger of the utmost urgency. She said more must be done to counter the growing threat from non-communicable diseases.

She cautioned the world to be on alert to the emerging health consequences from climate change. She said programs must be sharpened for dealing with more outbreaks of cholera and dengue. Chan said more people will suffer from indoor and outdoor pollution and be vulnerable to health problems resulting from extreme weather events.

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