RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been a low point for the World Health Organization. That epidemic is still not over. There was an uptick in cases last week across the region. But the way the WHO has handled it has led to a push from both inside and outside the agency for dramatic restructuring of the international health body. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The missteps of the WHO in the early days of the West African Ebola outbreak are now legendary. The organization at first was dismissive of the scale of the problem. Then, it deflected responsibility for the crisis to the overwhelmed governments of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. And finally, once it stepped up to take charge of the Ebola response, it lacked the people and funds to do so. Ebola was the WHO's Hurricane Katrina, its moment of failure. The WHO director, Margaret Chan, recently admitted her agency was unprepared for the epidemic.
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MARGARET CHAN: And it overwhelmed the capacity of WHO. And it is a crisis that cannot be solved by a single agency or by a single country.
BEAUBIEN: But maybe a world health body that had sufficient resources and staff could've solved it. In the wake of Ebola, Chan late last month announced a plan for the most sweeping reforms of the WHO since its founding in 1948. The overhaul would change the focus of the WHO from a technical body that offers advice to an operational agency capable of responding to a health crisis in the field. The proposal would also create a $100 million emergency fund and a cadre of pre-trained doctors, nurses and epidemiologists that could be rapidly deployed during a crisis. In order for the world to be prepared for the next pandemic, even Chan says her agency must change.
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CHAN: We always say that we go to war with a virus. But the world is not as well-prepared for epidemic as they are for war.
BEAUBIEN: Georgetown University professor Lawrence Gostin has been both a longtime critic and supporter of the WHO. He welcomes the reform proposals, saying they address the agency's deep structural and financial problems.
LAWRENCE GOSTIN: WHO has a global mandate to be the global leader in the world. But their budget is significantly less than the budget of, say, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is only one country. So the amount of their budget is wholly incommensurate with their mission.
BEAUBIEN: Much of their budget, roughly 80 percent, is already earmarked by member states for specific health projects. This leaves very little discretionary cash to tackle plagues and emerging new pathogens. After the 2009 swine flu pandemic, a WHO commission called for almost all the same reforms that are currently being floated in Geneva. Those earlier recommendations went nowhere. But Gostin at Georgetown believes Ebola was a wake-up call, not just for the WHO, but for the international community that maintains the agency.
GOSTIN: If you think about why we form a global health system, including the WHO, it was precisely for this moment.
BEAUBIEN: The proposed reforms next go before the WHO's governing body, the World Health Assembly. That group, which is made up of representatives from the 194 member countries, is expected to approve the changes on paper.
STEWART PATRICK: Reforming national institutions is really, really hard. We've seen this in many other areas besides global health.
BEAUBIEN: Stewart Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog, The Internationalist.
PATRICK: Partly because you bang up against the national interest of member states. And you also bang up against the bureaucratic, bizarre peculiarities and interests of the institutions themselves.
BEAUBIEN: But Ebola was such a black eye for the WHO, he thinks there may be an opportunity right now for reform.
PATRICK: But my prediction is that it will be more at the margins and that it will take, alas, another major disaster to really drive this process of reform forward against the interests arrayed against it.
BEAUBIEN: The World Health Assembly takes up the reform proposal in May, at its meeting in Geneva. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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