Director-General of the World Health Organization Margaret Chan spoke in Gaston Hall on Wednesday Sept. 30 to discuss the issues of 21st century global health and how they relate to the ideas of global governance. Chan’s lecture came as the second installment of Georgetown’s Global Futures Initiative semester-long series on “The Global Future of Governance.”
Chan, who has served as director-general since 2007, spoke on past, current, and future challenges that the global community faces in dealing with issues of public health. She noted that many of the previous advances in public health have actually led to problems today.
“The discovery of miracle drugs, public faith in the certainty of science, and the use of new technologies to improve the food supply were all good things that went bad,” said Chan.
Chan pointed out antimicrobial bacterial resistance and unhealthy, yet cheap, foods as two results of public health innovations that led to problems like the need for new antibiotics and obesity.
Additionally, Chan noted that health systems today are geared toward the public health problems of the 20th century, especially infectious diseases. However, the issues related to chronic, noncommunicable diseases, like diabetes, will become a point of issue for governments and their health systems for the rest of this century, according to Chan. She cited societal and economic trends toward commodification and lower costs as driving the increase in these diseases and promoting unhealthy lifestyles.
Keeping in the theme of the series “The Global Future of Governance,” Chan explained that reaching agreements between countries in how to address and prepare for these health concerns can further challenge abating their effects. She referenced the rights of nations in enacting global health policies.
“What it is at stake here is nothing less than the sovereign right of a nation to enact legislation that protects its citizens from harm,” Chan said.
Despite chronic diseases as a larger issue for the future, Chan also spoke on the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Chan even admitted that the WHO was not fully prepared for such a large scale crisis.
“WHO as an organization for the past 70 years, we’ve been managing small and medium sized outbreaks comfortably. Maybe too comfortable,” Chan said. “We did not invest in our capacity in our preparedness for huge outbreaks, especially huge outbreaks in fragile.”
However, she stated that the creation of a blueprint to expedite the process for handling the next global health emergency will better equip the WHO and its members to fight off an infectious disease.
Furthermore, Chan described the importance of creating integrated approaches to solving the global health problems of the future. She stated that related issues such as climate change and nutrition will need to factor into long-term public health solutions.
“We need to think of a comprehensive integrated approach to address the complex, multiple challenges of the world is giving us.”