Authors of new article in British Medical Journal say WHO has proven inefficient on global health security; outline key questions that must be asked of prospective director general candidates
In an article published this week in the British Medical Journal, members of three different independent panels who last year evaluated and released reports on the global response to Ebola have concluded that major reforms are needed at the World Health Organization (WHO) and that prospective candidates for the next director general must be carefully questioned and scrutinized before the World Health Assembly votes in May 2017 to select a new leader.
The authors—Peter Piot, the co-discoverer of the Ebola virus and now Dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Harvard School of Public Health Professor Ashish Jha; Harvard Global Health Institute Research Director Suerie Moon; AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Global Public Health Ambassador Jorge Saavedra; Edinburgh University Professor of Global Public Health Devi Sridhar; National Academy of Medicine Director Victor Dzau; Centre for Global Health Security Director David Heymann; Cambridge University’s Murray Edwards College Director Barbara Stocking; Harvard Initiative on Global Health Quality Assistant Director Liana Woskie; and Graduate Institute of International Studies’ Global Health Programme Director Ilona Kickbusch—raised questions on how the next WHO director general will tackle future health emergencies and what policies and procedures must be in place to prepare for the next health crisis and increase accountability. In particular, AHF’s Saavedra is calling for these questions to be addressed to prospective candidates by groups of experts that include academia and civil society and not solely by representatives of governments from the World Health Assembly.
“Our primary goal is to convince political leaders worldwide to reflect hard on the type of director general they want to lead the WHO,” the authors write in the article. These questions “show the different facets of leadership that are required to ensure that WHO has a key role in the coming years and decades and that an Ebola-like crisis never happens again. Business as usual cannot continue; transformative leadership is called for.”
“The World Health Organization only responds to governments’ cry for help. If a government does not want to request help or release critical public health information due to political reasons, WHO severely struggles to order an alert and respond quickly with the proper resources,” says Dr. Saavedra, who traveled to Sierra Leone in June 2015 to interview key responders to the Ebola epidemic. Saavedra is concerned that the WHO’s current structure and organization impedes its ability to hear, respond to and seriously take into account the voices, opinions, data and advice from civil society or communities working in the field who usually have the first direct contact with populations affected by an outbreak, as was seen when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) first alerted WHO to an Ebola outbreak in Guinea in early 2014. “For many of us who have co-authored different reports detailing the WHO’s shortcomings, it is clear that WHO has proven inefficient in dealing with global health security,” he continues. “We believe there can be a strong leadership role played by the UN Security Council and that one step it can take is to establish a high level council on global public health crises.”
“In responding to the Ebola outbreak, AHF lost two of our physicians, Dr. Sheik Humarr Khan in Sierra Leone and Dr. John Taban Dada in Liberia. We are intimately familiar with the pain experienced by millions of people living in these countries who lost their families, relatives and friends to the disease,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “The delayed and uncoordinated response by Margaret Chan and the WHO is proof that the recruitment of the next director general should not be business as usual. With the next global health crisis looming around the corner, we need to make sure that we have competent leadership and structures in place to respond quickly in situations when every minute counts.”