World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan began her address to the 66th session of the World Health Assembly on Monday on a grim note, reminding WHO's legislative body of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which spread to 37 countries, leaving 8,273 sick and 775 dead. Chan then compared that outbreak to two new diseases: a novel coronavirus from the Middle East, and the H7N9 avian influenza virus.
She continued: "These two diseases remind us that the threat from emerging and epidemic-prone diseases is ever-present … A threat in one region can quickly become a threat to all."
But the threat of a global pandemic is not the only challenge WHO is facing now. The organization is also suffering from deep budget cuts, and is reassessing its role within the framework of global health. If one thing is clear from these first few days of the World Health Assembly, it is that the WHO of tomorrow will not be the same hegemonic health powerhouse of the past. It will likely be more decentralized, placing a greater share of the responsibility for health on individual nations. Countries will be compelled to carry the onus for provision of health, including epidemic control, on their own shoulders, increasingly based on domestic revenues.
But WHO still has an important role to play in providing technical support, especially in times of crisis. Below are three recommendations for how the organization can adapt to an uncertain economic and political environment, without putting the world at risk of a disease outbreak.