WHO Leader: Timeliness, Information-Sharing Key to Fighting Diseases

Dr. Margaret Chan shares lessons from previous health crises

HONG KONG, December 20, 2012 — Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), emphasized the importance of preparedness and timely intervention in dealing with infectious diseases in today's highly interconnected and globalized world.

In her speech here at Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Dr. Chan noted that when the Ebola virus first appeared in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, the world was unprepared to respond in any level. In hindsight, the outbreak offered valuable lessons to global health professionals. First, they realized that outbreaks of disease gather a lot of interest — both positive and negative — from the media. Second, they also recognized an urgent need for international preparedness and response for containing infectious diseases.

In 2003, the global health community faced the emergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong. As the city's health director, Dr. Chan successfully contained what she called the "first severe new disease of the 21st century." Three factors, according to Dr. Chan, helped public officials control SARS: preparedness, timely intervention, and timely sharing of important information.

Although the SARS epidemic stopped short of becoming a global pandemic, Dr. Chan pointed out another infectious disease that did spread globally. "If all these mechanisms had been in place when AIDS was discovered, could we have stopped the AIDS epidemic?" she asked.

SARS was a clear example of how a disease could spread so rapidly through international travel and how a coordinated health system across different countries could respond to a new health threat. Despite the advances in global health, Dr. Chan warned that the future looks bright for new diseases.

"New diseases are certain to emerge," she said. Even so, "When this happens, rest assured. The World Health Organization and her partners are watching closely and will very quickly deploy a strong, global capacity to respond," she added.

Reported by Audrey Yoo

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