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WHO Chief Warns of Risk to 'Winning Streak' for Public Health

Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization
Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization

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This is the VOA Special English Health Report.

The World Health Organization says it has reached a limit in its fight against diseases and disasters. Director-General Margaret Chan says the agency is "overextended" and faces "serious funding shortfalls." Dr. Chan says the WHO is no longer operating "at the level of top performance that is increasingly needed, and expected."

She told the agency's Executive Board on Monday that the level of action should not be governed by the size of a problem. Instead, it should be governed by the extent to which the WHO can have an effect on the problem.

Dr. Chan said one of the most exciting developments recently is a new vaccine that could end Africa's deadly meningitis epidemics. She said no large drug company wanted to develop the vaccine because it would not bring big profits. So a group of researchers developed it with major support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

MARGARET CHAN: "The vaccine was developed, from start to finish, in less than a decade, in record time, and at about one-tenth of the cost usually needed to bring a product through development to the market. African countries frequently have to wait for years, if not decades, for new medical products to trickle into their health systems. Not this time."

African scientists tested the vaccine. The first countrywide vaccination campaign took place in Burkina Faso in December. This is being followed by similar campaigns in Mali and Niger.

But Dr. Chan noted there are twenty-five countries in Africa's so-called meningitis belt. Many do not have enough money for vaccination campaigns.

The WHO chief warned that a shortage of money could also limit other progress. She said public health has been on what she called "a winning streak."

She pointed out the meningitis vaccine as well as new vaccines for preventing diarrheal disease and pneumonia and a new test for tuberculosis. But she questioned whether there are enough resources to maintain, if not speed up, these gains.

MARGARET CHAN: "Treated bed nets need to be replaced. Antiretroviral therapy for AIDS is a lifeline, for a lifetime. Case finding and treatment for tuberculosis are a constant undertaking that needs to intensify. Every new generation of babies must be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases. Last year, we launched an aggressive new strategy for polio eradication. Does the international community have the stamina, and the resources, to reach the milestones?”

The World Health Organization is part of the United Nations. The Executive Board is meeting this week in Geneva to prepare for the next World Health Assembly in May.

And that's the VOA Special English Health Report. I'm Steve Ember.


Contributing: Lisa Schlein