The World Health Organization (WHO) operates as the United Nations’ overall authority on global health, particularly in the areas of direction and coordination. Since 1948, the organization has provided deft leadership on issues concerning international health, and has also sculpted health research agenda to establish health norms and standards. At a time when global health concerns have taken on a new and more insistent urgency, the role of the WHO in supporting the international community has become just as compelling and necessary.
As the Director-General of the organization, Dr. Margaret Chan is responsible for steering the WHO towards its goals and for overseeing the effectiveness of the organization’s programs and strategies. She also represents the WHO to the international community, and works to ensure seamless coordination between the organization and its partners. In a speech she delivered during the 2007 David E. Barmes Global Health Lecture, Dr. Chan spoke of her experiences as WHO Director-General, particularly about the international focus on achieving the Millennium Development Goals. “In my first year in office, I have witnessed the depth of commitment to these goals on many different levels,” she said. “Health has become a fruitful ? and a friendly ? arena for foreign policy. I have stood together with heads of state as they launched initiatives for diseases and conditions rarely seen within their borders.”
But battling against such formidable opponents as HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis is an endeavor riddled with difficulties, a fact that Dr. Chan readily acknowledged in her speech. “Not all the news is good. With so much working in our favor, we can see what is holding us back. We have commitment, money, powerful interventions, and proven strategies for implementation. Here is the problem. The power of these interventions is not matched by the power of health systems to deliver them to those in greatest need on an adequate scale and in time.” A worldwide trend towards lifestyles that encourage obesity has also become a major challenge for Dr. Chan and the WHO, as is the unexpected upsurge in the number of those suffering from chronic diseases. She also pointed out the need to refine the very systems designed to respond to global health needs. “Public health has been given a big push forward, but it is still an uphill climb,” she explained. “Here is the reality. Interventions and money will have only a limited impact in the absence of adequate delivery systems.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Chan believes that the situation isn’t as dire as it appears. A source of hope, she says, is the presence of more and more groups fighting the world’s most salient and deadly pandemics. “We have some big new sources of support, some true innovations. We have the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. We have the GAVI Alliance, which is helping us reach record levels of coverage with childhood immunization,” she said. “We all know the importance of humanitarian funds, such as those provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”
Before being appointed as the WHO Director-General in November 2006, Dr. Chan served as the organization’s Director of the Department for Protection of the Human Environment. Previous to that, she was the Director of Health of Hong Kong for nine years, and obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
Despite some setbacks plaguing the mission against disease, Dr. Chan remains optimistic about what the WHO can ultimately accomplish. “There will always be unmet needs,” she acknowledges. “But health has never before received such attention or enjoyed such wealth. If I had to select a single development over the past year that encouraged me most, it would be this. International agencies working in health, the major funding agencies, foundations and donors now fully understand the absolute necessity of investing in basic health systems and infrastructures. This is a major step forward.”