The world is not prepared to cope with what appears to be a dramatic increase in new and reemerging infectious disease threats, the director general of the World Health Organization warned Monday.
Dr. Margaret Chan issued that blunt assessment in a speech opening the 2016 World Health Assembly, the annual general meeting of the WHO’s member states.
Characterizing her own remarks as a “stern warning,” Chan laid out various threats from West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, which has continued to flare, to Zika virus and urban outbreaks of yellow fever in Africa, which are increasingly the source of global concern.
“In an interconnected world characterized by profound mobility of people and goods, few threats to health are local anymore,” Chan warned.
She suggested the Zika virus — which causes microcephaly and other devastating brain defects in infants born to women infected during pregnancy — has shown how impotent the world is in the face of disease threats.
“To protect women of childbearing age, all we can offer is advice. Avoid mosquito bites. Delay pregnancy. Do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission,” Chan said, adding the crisis has also brought to the fore the consequences of not offering global access to family planning services.
The weeklong World Health Assembly will be asked to consider a number of proposals for shoring up the global response capacity for infectious disease threats.
One would involve creating a new mechanism, an international public health alert, to signal to countries that a disease outbreak risks becoming a global public health emergency.
The proposal to allow the WHO to declare international public health alerts is contained in a review of the International Health Regulations. The review was requested as a postmortem of how the IHR — a global treaty aimed at mitigating the risks of international spread of diseases — fared during the Ebola crisis.
The report concluded the problem wasn’t the IHR, but a failure to put the regulations into effect.
The assembly will also be asked to approve and fund an overhaul of the WHO’s health emergency management system. Chan called it the item on the agency’s agenda with “the most sweeping consequences.”
“Anything short of full political and financial support for the program will handicap the WHO response, right now and into the future,” she said.