Whoever fills the role, the new WHO director-general has a rocky road ahead

The 70th UN World Health Assembly will be held in Geneva from May 22-31, 2017. All 194 member countries vote for the next Director-General of the World Health Organization. The vote will be open to all 194 member countries, not just the executive committee.

The person who assumes office on 1 July 2017 will have a significant impact on global health and the organization. The number of candidates has now been reduced to three from the initial six names that member states proposed in September 2016.

Meet the Candidates

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has a non-medical background and is trained to work in the fields of biology, immunology, infectious diseases, and community health. Former Ethiopian health and foreign affairs Minister, he has a reputation as a malaria researcher.

Ghebreyesus has reportedly helped to advance the delivery of basic healthcare services in Ethiopia by implementing the ” Health Extension Workers” Program, which places two salaried workers in each village. The majority of the 38,000 workers or more are women who were recruited from their local communities. The program has been credited with a significant decrease in child mortality as well as improved maternal health.

Ghebreyesus said that he strongly believes in the strengthening of health systems and universal health coverage.

Sania Nishat is a cardiologist and former Pakistani health minister. She is also the co-chairperson of WHO’s commission to end childhood obesity. She is also the president and founder of the think tank Heartfile. This non-profit organization focuses on policy analysis and finding solutions to improve Pakistan’s healthcare system.

Nishtar has been known for her professional work, as well as academic and civil society work.

Margaret Chan’s tenure as Director-General of WHO is about to end. Pierre Albouy/Reuters

She brings to her role a wealth of experience in global health, health systems, and governance issues.

David Nabarro is a British medical doctor with years of experience working on child health and nutrition programs in South Asia and East Africa, as well as Iraq. His career was spent primarily at the United Nations and WHO.

Nabarro is a special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on climate change and sustainable development. He has also worked on the Sustainable Development Goals.

He said that his four priorities are aligning with the SDGs, responding to emergencies, engaging with member states in a trusted way, and focusing on people-centered policies.

Balance is the key to success.

The road will be difficult for whoever is chosen to fill the position.

As the WHO’s member states have grown, so has its mandate. The WHO is responsible for responding to infectious diseases, epidemics, pandemics, and sanitation issues. It also addresses access to medicine, migration of health workers, and non-communicable disease growth. Then, there is maternal and child healthcare, as well as universal access to medical care.

It is now being debated, but given the fact that many public and private organizations often have better funding and are focused on specific areas in public health.

Its bureaucracy severely constrains the WHO, and its budget falls far short of what it needs. This was best illustrated by the 2014 Ebola epidemic, which claimed more than 11300 lives.

The WHO did not declare the West African Ebola epidemic an international health crisis for over four months. Misha Hussain/Reuters

The WHO did not declare an international health crisis for over four months despite having the power to do so. The WHO’s pandemic response team was abolished months prior to the outbreak as part of budget-cutting and reorganization measures. This exacerbated its slow response. This was after major budgetary and staff cuts were made in 2011.

The WHO’s response to Ebola has been called a failure.

The epidemic revealed the WHO’s weaknesses, but it also demonstrated that countries without basic health systems are unable to cope with pandemics. The WHO needs to find a balance between its emergency response capability and the wider function to improve health systems.

The outbreak of Zika, which was highlighted as well, also demonstrated that the organization could act dec quickly, declare a global health emergency, and coordinate with its headquarters, regional office, and national and local government levels.

The WHO has shown that it is a crucial center for multilateral discussion and guidance. The WHO is playing a key role in the global fight against non-communicable illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. It also plays a major part in the battle against respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. These diseases have surpassed infectious diseases in the number of deaths around the globe.

The organization can’t do its job without sufficient resources, countries taking on their national and global responsibilities in health, and donors providing support to the poorer countries to help them develop their capabilities.

The new director general will face these challenges.

The road ahead

All three candidates made similar promises, such as leadership, improved WHO capabilities, coordination, funding, and transparency. The new director general will also have to address the divisions within regional and country systems and bureaucracy, as well as the budget.

The person in this role will have to be able to achieve sound goals in an environment with competing priorities and, at times, highly politicized views from member states, industries, and advocacy groups. This role requires technical expertise, administrative leadership, and diplomacy. It also demands integrity and prowess.

The future of the WHO is in good hands with these three highly accomplished leaders. They have a big task in front of them.


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