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World Unprepared To Cope With Emerging Infectious Diseases

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan delivers her speech during a conference in Lyon, central France on March 23, 2016.

FILE World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan delivers her speech during a conference in Lyon, central France on March 23, 2016.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, warns the world is not ready to cope with the threats posed by emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Chan told some 3,500 delegates attending the annual World Health Assembly they must work together to overcome global health threats.

World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan told a gathering of health ministers and providers that countries could no longer work in isolation to contain infectious diseases and overcome other health threats.

Waking an old disease

She says few threats are local anymore. She says people and goods move around in this interconnected world and so do diseases.For example, she notes drug-resistant pathogens, including the growing number of “superbugs,” travel internationally in people, animals, and food.

Victoria Topay and her children pose for a family portrait at her home in West Point, Monrovia, Liberia. The empty chairs are a symbolic representation of Victoria's late husband and family members who died of the Ebola virus, March 24, 2016.

Victoria Topay and her children pose for a family portrait at her home in West Point, Monrovia, Liberia. The empty chairs are a symbolic representation of Victoria's late husband and family members who died of the Ebola virus, March 24, 2016.

“The Ebola outbreak in three small countries paralyzed the world with fear and travel constraints….The rapidly evolving outbreak of Zika, Zika virus warns us that an old disease that slumbered for six decades in Africa and Asia can suddenly wake up, wake up on a new continent to cause a global health emergency.”

The Zika virus is particularly dangerous to pregnant women as it is linked with brain abnormalities in newborn babies.

Preparing for an outbreak

Chan says outbreaks become emergencies when affected countries have weak health systems that are unprepared to deal with them. In the case of Ebola, she says the epidemic spiraled out of control in large part because the West African countries lacked the means to detect, diagnose and properly care for the patients.

Five-month-old Laura undergoes a medical test at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 28, 2016.

Five-month-old Laura undergoes a medical test at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, April 28, 2016.

​“For Zika, we are again taken by surprise, with no vaccines and no reliable and widely available diagnostic tests," Chan said. "To protect women of childbearing age, what can we do? We can only offer advice. Avoid mosquito bites.Delay pregnancy. Do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission.”

Chan says WHO’s health emergency management system is undergoing a major reform to ensure its teams are able to respond more quickly and effectively to outbreaks and humanitarian emergencies.

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