Outgoing WHO Director Says Agency Remains Relevant

Margaret Chan, the outgoing Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), has opened this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA) by staunchly defending the organization against critics who say it has lost its relevance.  

Chan’s tenure as head of WHO will soon end and after 10 years of service, she appears intent on handing her successor, who will be elected Tuesday, an organization that is viable and remains the essential leader in global health.  

In addressing the WHA for the last time, Chan presented 3,500 delegates from WHO’s 194 member states with, what could be seen, as a report card of her work by presenting some highlights from a report issued this month tracking the evolution of public health during her 10-year administration.

“The report sets out the facts and assesses the trends, but makes no effort to promote my administration.  The report goes some way towards dispelling criticism that WHO has lost its relevance.  The facts tell a different story,” Chan said.

Drug costs

The report covers setbacks as well as successes and some landmark events.  Among the successes, she cited WHO’s decade-long fight “to get the prices for antiretroviral treatments for HIV down.”

In contrast, she said “prices for the new drugs that cure hepatitis-C plummeted within two years.”

The results in both cases have been dramatic in making life-saving drugs affordable for millions of people.  During the past 10 years, antiretroviral treatments have fallen from $10,000 to less than $100 a year and Hepatitis C drugs, which cost a prohibitive $80,000 just two years ago can now be had for less than $200.

Chan noted for most of her tenure she has been faced with shrinking health budgets resulting from the 2008 global financial crisis.

Despite the austerity measures forced upon the organization, she said WHO has made significant progress in many areas.  These include the elimination or reduction of neglected tropical diseases, bringing mental health out of the shadows and into the spotlight, and bringing polio and guinea worm closer to eradication.

Ebola epidemic

Along with these successes, Chan accepted responsibility for mistakes and bad decisions, including the WHO failure to recognize the magnitude of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.  

She acknowledged the devastating consequences of this lapse for the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, 11,315 of whom died from the deadly Ebola virus before the epidemic was declared in January 2016.

“But, WHO made quick course corrections,” said Chan, “and brought the three outbreaks under control through team work and partnerships and gave the world its first Ebola vaccine that confers substantial protection.

“This happened on my watch, and I am personally accountable,” she said.

New leader competition

The World Health Assembly, which runs through May 31, has an exceptionally heavy and important agenda, with the election of a new Director-General topping the list.

On Tuesday, delegates will choose the new head by secret ballot.  The three nominees include the first African candidate Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia; David Nabarro of Britain, and Sanja Nishtar of Pakistan.  

This is the first time that there has been more than one candidate.  Whoever wins this fiercely contested post will take office on July 1.

During the coming nine days, delegates will approve WHO’s program budget for 2018-19, which has risen to $4.7 billion.  The Assembly also will discuss a wide-range of health-related issues, including polio eradication, antimicrobial resistance, access to medicines and vaccines, health emergencies and the health of refugees and migrants.

This forum offers an opportunity for health ministers and other officials to present their views.  

Newly appointed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took the floor Monday to express the Trump Administration’s commitment to work with the new director general “on an agenda for ongoing improvements” including changes to ensure “a rapid and focused response to potential global health crises.”

Price stressed the need for reform and said Washington expected the next director-general “to prioritize threats to global health, including influenza.”

He said “we will work to enable all countries around the world to prevent, detect, respond to, mitigate, and control these outbreaks.”

Looking ahead

In closing her remarks to the WHA, Margaret Chan urged governments to maintain investments in health development, which, she said “brings dramatic results, also as a poverty reduction strategy.”

She said behind every number and every statistic is a person “who defines our common humanity and deserves our compassion, especially when suffering or premature death can be prevented.”

Judging from the thunderous applause at the end of her speech, the delegates appeared to have given Margaret Chan a good report card for her work during the past 10 years.

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