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:
1. Providing leadership on matters critical to health and engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed;
2. Shaping the research agenda and stimulating the generation, translation and dissemination of valuable knowledge;
3. Setting norms and standards and promoting and monitoring their implementation;
4. Articulating ethical and evidence-based policy options;
5. Providing technical support, catalyzing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity;
6. Monitoring the health situation and addressing health trends.
In addition to its six main roles, WHO is a major player in the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that came into force in September 2000. The focus of the MDGs are eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, a reduction in child mortality, improving maternal health, environmental sustainability, and creating a global partnership for development. Each goal involves careful input from WHO. They are an extremely important actor in seeing these goals bear fruit. Millions of people count on them in achieving success.
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 said to him 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 professional 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.
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 and 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 this epidemic? No one can, but what is known is that there are many dedicated professional from WHO giving their very best each day in an attempt to bring this virus under control. They are an essential player in bringing this matter under control. There will always be a certain few who will try to dispute why we need the U.N. or WHO for that matter, but from where I am sitting they are absolutely needed. Their work is crucial.