The Corner

Keep the Disease Fighters Focused

There is an interesting article in this morning’s Washington Post by Anne Applebaum about the World Health Organization. She argues that in cases of health emergencies like the swine flu everyone is turning to the WHO for solutions:

The Geneva-based WHO is the organization we all turn to at times like this, and rightly so: With more than 60 years’ experience, and real achievements under its belt — it led the successful campaign to eliminate smallpox in the 1970s — the WHO may well be the only international organization that we cannot live without. When infectious diseases are spread rapidly across borders, WHO is expected to coordinate the scientific response of national public health officials, from France to Malaysia, as well as the global information campaign needed to explain it. No national government can do the same.

The good news is that she thinks its director Margaret Chan is competent and will be a great asset today in the same way she was during the SARS epidemic in 2003. The bad news is that the WHO is part of the United Nations. As result it suffers from the same “illnesses as other UN agencies.” For instance, like the U.N., the WHO is not accountable to voters, is rarely scrutinized by the media, and often sets its priorities to reflect the political agenda of its members. She adds:

It gets worse: Like their U.N. colleagues, WHO bureaucrats spend much unnecessary time writing papers on legally dubious notions such as the “Right to Health”; others are scheming to create an international bureaucracy that would regulate all drug research and development; still others get sidetracked by issues such as obesity and automotive safety. The WHO’s 2008-13 strategic plan speaks of promoting “programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches,” whatever that means. The organization is not exempt from other aspects of U.N. politics, either: Taiwan’s repeated attempts to join the WHO are always vetoed by China, for example, and U.N. officials (speaking of human-rights-based approaches) routinely refuse Taiwanese journalists permission to cover WHO events. When the next epidemic starts in Taipei, we’ll be sorry.

Read the whole thing here.

For a good paper on some of the WHO’s other problems, read California State University at Northridge professor Glen Whitman’s briefing paper here.

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