Swine Flu: A Test of the WHO’s New Emergency Response Mechanism

The World Health Organization is getting a lot of attention these days,   and rightfully so. The organization is an independent body of the United Nations system responsible “for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.”  Its 193 member states form the WHO’s governing body, called the “World Health Assembly” that meets every May. The WHO’s director general is Dr. Margaret Chan of Hong Kong/China/Canada.

The last time the WHO got this much play in the press was amidst the 2003 SARs outbreak, which affected people from Hong Kong to Toronto.  Back then, the WHO was largely forced to improvise its way through the crisis–and did so successfully. The experience, however, lead member states to devise a more formal regulatory framework for dealing with similar situations in the future.  So, in 2005, the World Health Organization passed a sweeping set of reforms called the 2005 International Health Regulations, which set mandatory procedures by which member states and the WHO would respond to sudden international public health emergencies. The Swine Flu outbreak is the first major test of the new system.  

Julie Fischer, head of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Global Health Security program, offered a quick assessment (via email) of how the newly empowered WHO is responding to the crisis.

Thus far,  the system seems to be working as planned.  The only immediately apparent concern is what appears to have been an unnecessary delay in intraregional communications among the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, which reflects both bilateral/trilateral communications issues but also calls into question whether [Pan-American Health Organization], the regional WHO office, served its role adequately.  That would not be an issue of WHO reform, but more of staffing and function.

So, it would seem that formal frameworks for international cooperation are a net plus when it comes to responding to these types of emergencies.

Photo from Flickr user tukatuka.