16 July 2008


16 July 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


Besides its leading role in health, the World Health Organization (WHO) was also there to respond to emergencies, the agency’s new Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises, Eric Laroche, said today at a Headquarters press conference, highlighting the organization’s role in managing the effects of climate change, the food crisis and other global health challenges.

The World Health Organization had very significantly increased its capacity in the last three years and wanted to be a credible, predictable and reliable partner in the emergency field, he said. 

Very often, however, the agency’s partners did not know what WHO did well, he said.  It was important for them not to have false expectations of what WHO could and could not do, but, as a newcomer to WHO, he had been surprised to see how many resources WHO could “bring to the table of humanitarian action”. 

Indeed, he said, the organization had two roles in emergency relief.  The first was to lead the health cluster, and the second was to respond to emergencies.  And WHO was willingly increasing its presence and engagement in emergency relief activities, where it intended to become a critical actor. 

The agency still needed to grow, and its Director-General, Margaret Chan, was fully committed to building that capacity and to getting the respect of the organization’s partners, he said, acknowledging that the process would be a lengthy one, as with everything that involved institutional and cultural change.

Meanwhile, WHO had responded to 12 emergencies in the past six months as compared to 17 in the previous two years.  Those had included the cyclone in Myanmar and the powerful earthquake in China's south-western Sichuan Province. 

Recalling the challenges of the world’s two most recent natural disasters –- the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China –- he said those had starkly brought to the fore the fact that, unless countries had safe hospitals and health structures, they could not successfully fend off those kinds of emergencies.  Chinese officials he had met after the earthquake had told him that their major challenge was not to rescue or feed the people, but to evacuate the tens of thousands of injured to some 373 hospitals in 20 provinces, via thousands of aircraft.  In that level of emergency, most of the infrastructure had collapsed.

Stressing the importance of preparedness he said, “We don’t pay enough attention to preparedness.  And there are programmes that make all the schools, all the hospitals, all the health centres safe enough for people to work.”  The World Health Organization had decided to embark on a campaign on safe hospitals and to make next year’s World Health Day about safe hospitals, as those would mitigate many natural disasters.

Presently, one of WHO’s most important clusters was in Myanmar, consisting of no less than 40 different agencies -– all involved in data assessment, planning and developing strategies with the Government, he noted.  That was a totally new way of doing business, and one which enabled all involved to share data.  As a result of cooperatively working together with the Government, as well as the numerous systems that had been put in place, such as an early warning system, there had been no reported outbreak of any epidemics of cholera, malaria or dengue fever in Myanmar.  Such outbreaks had earlier been feared in the immediate aftermath of the cyclone. 

He said that one of the features to emerge out of the Myanmar and Chinese events had been the need for the two Governments to have advice on psycho-socio support.  That seemed to be an emerging theme in all emergencies, particularly in natural disasters.  Overall, WHO had extended its coverage and was becoming more and more operational.  It challenged critics that said the organization was just about norms and standards to look at its history:  “WHO is known because WHO has eradicated smallpox, is working on the anti-smoking campaign, [and] is about to eradicate poliomyelitis.  No one else than WHO could have done that.  And this is not about norm and standards.  This is about being operational.  So, to say that WHO cannot be operational is absolutely wrong,” he said. 

In China, he explained, besides the relief assistance WHO had provided as a result of the earthquake, it had also responded to the Government’s request for an assessment, and to give advice and provide a general analytical framework on reconstruction and recovery, in line with international standards, of the health system.  The result had been a WHO/World Bank report on the reconstruction of the health system in China.

He said that, when it came to disaster relief, there was an “ethical imperative” that it received the right funding, which was not presently the case.  He enunciated his organization’s ideas on climate change and the new ways it planned to do business with the humanitarian community in that regard.  He also touched on the global food security crisis and the need to keep in mind the human dimension of that crisis, saying that, all too often, people talked about food and trade, but forgot about people.

It was important to bear in mind that mortality, morbidity, particularly among children under five, was going to rise, and that there would be prolonged and more severe cases of diarrhoea and pneumonia, he said.  In addition, the elderly would be more likely to die earlier and in larger numbers, as the treatments for HIV and tuberculosis would become less effective, and access to overall health care would dry up.  Thus, it was wrong to look at the global food security crisis only in terms of trade and agriculture.

While “everything has been said on climate change”, and everyone knew that there would be more floods, less water and probably heat waves, what had not been said was that climate change would bring with it new viruses, new insect factors, and an increase in asthma, and dengue fever, malaria and other infections, he said.  Often, the medical dimension of climate change was not taken into account.

He feared, too, that Governments would not be helped to face the consequences of climate change, if the current way of doing business continued.  The solution lay in helping a Government build the capacity for preparedness, and response and recovery, at the national and at the community levels.  That must involve the Governments, themselves, along with the local authorities and communities; most of the time, the humanitarian actors were not in the country when an emergency first broke out, making the job of the international community that much more difficult.  And, many international actors, including non-governmental organizations, were not used to working with and for the Governments, which also posed a challenge for emergency relief activities.

Flowing from the notion that building capacity in a country was the future, he felt that WHO was well prepared to respond to that challenge, despite criticism that it was “too close to the Government at the onset of an emergency”, he said.

In response to correspondents’ questions, Mr. Laroche said that it had been his observation over many years that the health sector was one of the worst funded.  That was not only abnormal, but unacceptable, he added.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.