Redefining the WHO

The world of global health has changed, and while the WHO remains a viable player with many successes (past and present) to its name, it should be considered that it could be more effective. Evidence of this is in the news every time there is a major health/environmental disaster. When cholera broke out in Haiti, the response was inadequate and sluggish. A lot of this can be tied to the fact that the WHO simply does not have enough money to be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which can fund whatever looks worth funding), and it doesn’t have the staff to be UNICEF or MSF. Indeed, the WHO is at something of a fiscal crisis, and the prospect of widely expanding their scope of care is not totally feasible given the economic climate. This need not be seen as a tragedy. There is something that the WHO has the power to be that none of the other major global health players do.

The WHO should seek to become the world’s premier source for medical information. It has 194 member states, and should gather, refine, and organize data from these countries. All the demographic information should be made available. A project like this is more feasible with the WHO budget and would grant the other big players in international health a comprehensive view of world health. With such a database available, need would become more apparent, as would records of how past global health initiatives had played out. In effect, it would provide a set of tools usable by all, from large international philanthropy groups to small local NGOs. The WHO has played the role of info gatherer in the past, and has made recommendations based on its findings[1].

Why then, should the WHO do this as opposed to any other group? According to Barry Bloom, “the WHO is also in a stronger position than any other agency to simplify and harmonize the fragmented world of global health. Thousands of donors are now funding projects to address individual diseases. The WHO should foster the integration of health activities [2]“.

This move would also address the chief criticism of the WHO, that it is overly bureaucratic and political. With the needs of so many nations to address, decision-making is a difficult process. This is why the response to the Haitian cholera epidemic took so long, as the approval of vaccines is complicated when every voice needs to be heard. With the WHO focusing on information collection and analysis, the process of directly treating the people in need would be left to organizations that are more effective at it, such as non-governmental organizations with less political leadership and less concern for crossing t’s[3].

While the shift to data could be seen as a retreat from the original vision of the organization, it is also a unique opportunity. It would allow the WHO to address health issues that are not issues yet. If it started to look at macrodata, perhaps they could release data about the current state of the population crisis, or address precisely how a warming climate is affecting the worldwide spread of infectious diseases.

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