UN health agency seeking more active role in emergencies

Eric Laroche, Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crisis for WHO

16 July 2008 – The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking to expand the role it plays in responding to emergencies, one of the agency’s senior officials said today in New York.

“WHO has increased its capacity in the last three years very significantly and wants to be a credible, predictable and reliable partner in the emergency field,” Eric Laroche, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises, told reporters.

He noted that the agency’s Director-General Margaret Chan is dedicated to boosting WHO’s capacity to enable its emergency response ability.

“It’s going to be a lengthy process,” Mr. Laroche said, given that institutional and cultural change takes time.

As a relative newcomer to the agency, having taken up his position earlier this year, he expressed his surprise at “how many resources WHO can bring to the table of humanitarian action.”

Currently, the agency leads the health cluster – comprising dozens of partners – which aims to understand the different agendas and mandates of organizations working on the ground.

The Assistant Director-General pointed to the example of Myanmar, which was struck by the deadly Cyclone Nargis in early May, where WHO lead a cluster comprising some 40 different agencies which have shared their data, assessments and planning. “So this is a completely different new way of doing business,” he said.

Despite fears of disease outbreak following the rains, to date there has been no outbreak of cholera, dengue fever or malaria, he added.

Regarding climate change, Mr. Laroche said that such possibilities as increased flooding and less water are well-known, but that many are not as familiar with the medical dimension of global warming, including the advent of new viruses and insect vectors.

To address such health issues, he said it is imperative to boost preparedness and to increase response and recovery capacity in countries at both the national and local levels.

Missing from the discussion on the global food crisis, Mr. Laroche pointed out, is talk of its impact on people. The problem is not only one of trade and agriculture and thus human suffering must be dealt with, he said, adding that there is the prospect of a lower birth rate, increased deaths among the elderly, decreased effectiveness of HIV treatments and declining access to health care, among others.


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