The outbreak of the Ebola virus in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria has brought into sharp focus the importance of the United Nations global health affiliate the World Health Organization (WHO). With respect to matters of global health, no other organization is capable of mobilizing the resources, responding to, and combatting threats to public health. It is a vital actor on the world stage as it must confront some of the deadliest diseases known to man. The WHO is guided by six main roles as stipulated by the organization’s Eleventh General Programme of Work 2006-2015. The roles are:
Providing leadership on matters critical to health and engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed;
Shaping the research agenda and stimulating the generation, translation and dissemination of valuable knowledge;
Setting norms and standards and promoting and monitoring their implementation;
Articulating ethical and evidence-based policy options;
Providing technical support, catalyzing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity;
Monitoring the health situation and addressing health trends.
Precision Response is Key How WHO responds to public health threats, such as disease outbreaks or natural disasters, requires a precise and coordinated plan. The disproportionate share of the affected people WHO serves reside in the developing world. They are the poorest and most vulnerable individuals. Any delay in responding to their needs can mean the difference between life and death, particularly as it relates to a virus like Ebola. As a result, WHO set forth a “roadmap” this past week to put an end to any further transmission of Ebola in the next 6-9 months. In addition the global health body plans to minimize its spread, while also focusing on the larger societal and economic consequences as a result of the outbreak. WHO knows time is of the essence, and there is no entity better equipped to handle this crisis than them.
No End in Sight According to Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, "No one is talking about an early end to the outbreak." She added that she anticipates Ebola continuing for “many more months.” There is one issue that the director-general believes has exacerbated the problem – poverty. These West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia rank well below the poverty line. These countries have had to endure years of conflict and civil war that has decimated their ability to combat this virus. The health infrastructure is essentially non-existent; it is estimated that there are one or two doctors per 100,000 people in West Africa, according to Dr. Chan. Poverty forces individuals to flee their homeland in search of work. This migration causes a spread of the virus that threatens areas not previously inflicted. Liberia recently closed many of its borders to prevent such an occurrence from happening. However, this is not something that is easily accomplished. As the death toll continues to mount, the challenges for the health professionals on the ground becomes greater every day.
U.N. Broadens Its Efforts In an effort to assist in stemming the tide of the Ebola virus, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week appointed Dr. David Nabarro as Senior U.N. System Coordinator in charge of Ebola. Dr. Nabarro will work closely with Dr. Chan of WHO in coordinating their efforts. Dr. Nabarro, in an interview with UN News Centre, indicated that WHO’s primary responsibility is to diagnose and treat those who may be infected. This is a massive undertaking and an important reason why we need WHO. In his interview, Dr. Nabarro noted that when he met with the leadership of the various nations affected by Ebola he noted that they wanted WHO to take the lead to assist them in treating their respective citizens. In order to properly inform the public and to avoid widespread panic, the health professionals remarked that social media has a crucial role to play in getting the right message out to people. If the public receives incorrect information, this will only complicate an already dangerous situation.
Unmatched Success The accomplishments of WHO in the area of global health is unrivaled. The most notable achievement came in 1950 when the eradication of smallpox was realized. As a result, life expectancy in the developing world has seen a 60% rise. Furthermore, according to the Center for Global Development, children under the age of five now have a greater chance of survival. WHO has largely been responsible for controlling tuberculosis in China; eliminating childhood polio in Latin America; many regions on the continent of Africa have experienced the containment of river blindness; and Sri Lankan women do not fear dying during childbirth all as a result of the efforts of WHO. Should the U.S. be worried? We have all seen the images of the doctor and aid worker be transported back to the U.S. from the region after contracting Ebola. Thankfully they both appear to be doing well at this point in time. However in an era of globalization where people, goods, and services move about so freely, how can one say we will ever be truly free from these epidemics? No one can, but what is known is that there are many dedicated professionals from WHO giving their very best each day in an attempt to manage this crisis. They are essential players in bringing this matter under control. There will always be naysayers who will try to dispute why we need the U.N., or WHO for that matter; but to all those opposed to the U.N. and its agencies think about this question for a moment: If you were ever to find yourself in a country where you were threatened by such a crisis, would you not want the assistance of a global health organization like WHO to assist you? Of course you would! To say otherwise would simply be foolish. There is no disputing the fact that their work is crucial to the survivability of many around the world today.