Lives at risk unless WHO
reforms, U.N. report says
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[February 09, 2016]
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Feb 8 (Reuters) - The World Health
Organization needs urgent reform to boost its ability to respond to
crises, and failure to act now could cost thousands of lives, according
to an advance copy of a high-level U.N. report.
The report, entitled "Protecting Humanity from Future Health
Crises", is the latest in a series of reviews by global health
experts which have been sharply critical of the WHO's response to
the devastating Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
"This may be the last opportunity to ensure the WHO is empowered" to
build an effective emergency response capacity, warned an advance,
unedited copy of the report by a U.N. panel, made available online
over the weekend in a link on the United Nations' daily Journal
"The high risk of major health crises is widely underestimated and
... the world's preparedness and capacity to respond is woefully
insufficient," said the panel, convened in the wake of the Ebola
"If the WHO does not successfully reform, the next major pandemic
will cause thousands of otherwise preventable deaths."
With all eyes now focused on the response to the mosquito-borne Zika
virus, which has been reported in 33 countries with a possible but
not proven link to birth defects, the WHO finds itself under even
WHO chiefs have previously promised to act swiftly on reforming the
agency's emergency responses.
A WHO spokeswoman in Geneva told Reuters the organization "is fully
committed to urgently reforming our emergency work to address all
emergency health risks and events in a predictable, capable,
dependable, flexible and accountable manner".
She referred specifically to the description of global preparedness
as woefully insufficient, saying previous reports had drawn the same
conclusion and the "WHO acknowledges this".
The spokeswoman added that the Zika virus outbreak spreading from
Brazil has "catalyzed immediate action" within the WHO to work
together as one organization.
It was not immediately clear when the U.N. panel's final report
would be published.
The Ebola outbreak, which began in Guinea and spread from there to
infect thousands across Liberia and Sierra Leone, killed more than
The U.N. panel's key recommendation was for the WHO to build a new
Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, which "must have
real command and control capability, access to specialized human and
operational resources to execute a health response".
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It also said all countries must meet the full obligations of
international health regulations which, among other things, set
rules on how and when to report disease outbreaks.
Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity,
agreed with the panel's recommendation for the creation of a new
center, which he said must be "strong and independent".
"Epidemic and pandemic diseases are among the greatest of all
threats to human health and security, against which we have for too
long done too little to prepare," he said.
"After four inquiries into the preventable tragedy of Ebola, there
is now a strong consensus about what must be done. The WHO’s
leadership and member states must make 2016 the year of decision and
The U.N. panel said it was "convinced that there is no substitute
for having a single global health leader" and that "the World Health
Organization should become this leader".
But failure by the WHO to reform, it said, "may necessitate
consideration of alternate U.N. institutional response mechanisms".
It added that too often, "global panic about epidemics has been
followed by complacency and inaction". It cited as an example a
review of global preparedness drawn up after the 2009 H1N1 flu
pandemic, whose recommendations were mostly not addressed.
"Had they been implemented, thousands of lives could have been saved
in West Africa," it said, referring to Ebola.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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