Margaret Chan’s 3 Slo-Mo Disasters

margaret chan
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US Mission Photo / Eric Bridiers

GENEVA – 3 “slow-motion disasters” are threatening recent global health gains, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said Monday in her address to delegates attending the 69th World Health Assembly.

Chan cited the threats posed by climate change, the failure of antimicrobials because of resistance and the rise of noncommunicable diseases. “These are not natural disasters. They are manmade disasters created by policies that place economic interests above concerns about the well-being of human lives and the planet that sustains them,” Chan said, pointing as examples to the continued use of fossil fuels to power economies and the marketing of of unhealthy foods and beverages after their detrimental effects have become clear.

“This is the way the world works,” Chan said.

She warned that the world is fast approaching a tipping point beyond which the slo-mo disasters will be irreversible. “For antimicrobials, we are on the verge of a post-antibiotic era in which common infections once again will kill,” Chan warned.

Developing another major theme in her speech, Chan emphasized the modern world’s interconnectedness saying, “Very few threats to health are local anymore.” Her examples:

  • A single meal can easily contain ingredients from all over the world.
  • The refugee crisis in the Middle East had a significant impact on Europe.
  • The Ebola outbreak paralyzed the world.
  • The unexpected appearance of Zika in South America after 6 decades of slumber on another continent

Chan leavened the ominous survey of threats by also calling on the Assembly to recognize considerable recent achievements. “Public health constantly struggles to hold diseases at bay, to change lifestyle behaviors and to find enough money to do these and many other jobs but sometimes we need to step back and celebrate.”

Chan cited the gains made during the era of the Millennium Development Goals, including the fact that 19,000 fewer children die every day, the 44% drop in maternal mortality and the 85% of tuberculosis cases that are successfully cured. She also found encouragement in more recent achievements including Cuba’s success in becoming the first country to eliminate maternal-to-child transmission of HIV, the reduction of Guinea worm disease to just 2 cases so far this year, Africa’s achievement in going 2 years without a wild poliovirus case, and the successful transition to a bivalent polio vaccine in 155 countries.

“The way people look at health now is different. It has moved from looking at health as a drain on resources to an investment,” Chan said.

Chan later discussed the ongoing Yellow Fever outbreak that has reached the capital cities of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This has happened despite the fact that a vaccine against Yellow Fever has been in existence since 1937, Chan said.

The entirely preventable outbreak highlights the world’s shortcomings when comes to fighting infectious disease.
“Let me give you a stern warning: What we are seeing now looks more and more like a dramatic resurgence of the threat from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Chan said. “The world is not prepared to cope.”

— Brian W. Simpson, Global Health NOW editor-in-chief, is reporting from Geneva this week at the World Health Assembly. Visit this page for more GHN stories from the World Health Assembly.

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