‘We must reform WHO now’, says UK chief medical officer

By on 07/04/2015 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Professor Dame Sally Davies calls for urgent action

The chief medical adviser to the UK government has called for an urgent reform of the World Health Organisation (WHO), after the Ebola outbreak in West Africa revealed that “we haven’t got the right global response”.

Speaking at a London event organised by the Association of Commonwealth Universities last week, Professor Dame Sally Davies said the outbreak has shown that “we must change how we do things.”

The world’s worst Ebola epidemic has killed over 10,200 people in the three most affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since March 2014 when it was first confirmed in the forest region of Guinea.

The global response has been widely criticised for being too slow; and last month, Medecins Sans Frontieres, which first raised the alarm over Ebola, published a report which stated that everyone from national governments to the WHO had created bottlenecks that prevented the epidemic being quickly snuffed out.

Davies said that the WHO – the directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations (UN) system – has had to reform itself anyway, but that the Ebola crisis “gives it a massive kick”.

She said that “we cannot not do it now” and that the WHO needs a global health emergency fund it can call on.

It also needs “a network that links in to the rest of the UN network, particularly the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the world food programme”, which is “good at doing the logistics”, she said.

Davies added: “We also need rapid response teams, and the WHO need to have their own that they can send and they need to be able to call on a network.”

Asked by Global Government Forum how confident she was that the WHO will reform itself, she said:“We must reform the WHO and I believe it’s doable. It’s not going to be easy.

“Britain is one of the biggest donors to the WHO with me on the executive board, so we do have some leverage.

She said that the creation of an emergency health fund had already been started off by the UK which “put the first $10m on the table at the executive board meeting of the WHO in January.”

Davies described the reforms as “quite a big move” which will require the support of the WHO’s director-general and senior staff.

But she said she believed that “the comets are in the right place that we should get some improvement: [WHO director-general] Margaret Chan can’t stand for re-election so she’s very keen to try and walk away in a couple of years having made significant change.”

Davies was appointed to her current role in 2010 after working as director of research and development, and chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health – a role she still holds.

Davies is the first ever woman to fill the role of chief medical adviser, which was first created 165 years ago.

She said that her job means she has to make scientific advice “palatable to politicians”.

Asked by Global Government Forum whether policymakers’ general medical understanding is good enough in the UK, she said: “Most of them are very keen to learn, ask questions and to join in.”

She added that she is generally “warmly welcomed” and that the fact she is a woman probably makes her “more approachable”.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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