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WHO Urges Action on Public Health Crises

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Lee Jong-wook, is calling for greater international coordination and more effective use of modern technology to deal with epidemics and threats from newly emerging diseases. Mr. Lee made a number of sweeping health proposals to delegates attending the opening of this year's World Health Assembly in Geneva.

WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook told representatives of WHO's 192 member-states that the capacity to respond to health threats quickly with well-coordinated action is indispensable for public health in the 21st century. He said that capacity is growing.

He pointed to the organization's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which, since it started five-years ago, has responded to more than 50 major disease outbreaks. "Major demands placed on it include those of avian influenza, ebola, Marburg, meningitis, myocarditis and plague. The network is also involved in setting up the early warning systems being established following the Tsunami disaster," he said.

Dr. Lee said the Network's capabilities have been enhanced with the establishment of the Strategic Health Operations Center last year. He said it serves as the nerve center for bringing together the logistics and health information needed to respond to public health emergencies. The center, he said, provides instant communication between member states and technical partners.

"Following the tsunami in Asia, our Health Action in Crises unit used it to its maximum advantage to coordinate responses. At present, it is enabling local, national and international health workers to contain the outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Angola," he said.

Mr. Lee praised, what he called, an encouraging trend in the rise in funding for health development.

The co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, told the delegates the foundation would more than double the amount of money it contributes for Global Health Research from $200 million to $450 million. He said billions of dollars are spent each year to develop new vaccines, drugs and other health tools, but only a fraction goes toward research on diseases that primarily affect developing countries.

In a news conference prior to his speech, Mr. Gates told journalists the world now has an historic chance to achieve dramatic improvements in health. "Between advances in science and technology and the right governmental policies, there is a lot of reason to have hope that the huge gap in health conditions between the developing world and the developed world can be closed very dramatically, … that if the world organizes in the right way, and sets the right priorities, that the advances in science and technology can make a dramatic difference, in terms of lowering this incredible gap," he said.

Mr. Gates said there is an urgent need to accelerate research on neglected diseases that kill millions of people every year in the developing world. He said the basic scientific tools are available to save these lives.