Georgetown Global Health Expert Discusses Importance of WHO on Capitol Hill

June 21, 2017 -- Infectious disease experts believe an influenza outbreak with the potential to kill 30 million people in a single year could occur within the next 10 years, Rebecca Katz, PhD, MPH, said during a panel discussion on pandemic preparedness and the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Katz, co-director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, and David Nabarro, MD, special adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General, were initially asked to testify before a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee. After Democrats invoked a procedural rule that led to the cancellation of committee hearings, Sen. Todd Young (R-Indiana), the presiding lawmaker for the WHO hearing, continued the discussion as scheduled in the Dirksen Senate Office Building and broadcasted it on Facebook Live.

PANDEMIC THREAT IN OUR LIFETIME

David Nabarro and Rebecca Katz are seated.  Katz is speaking.

“The threat of a pandemic during our lifetime is very real,” said Katz, an associate professor in the School of Nursing & Health Studies, in her opening statement.

“There has been a four-fold increase in the number of emerging infectious diseases, and because of rapid movement of people, animals and goods around the world, it means that a disease that emerges in one corner of the globe can be anywhere else within 24 to 48 hours,” she added.

INCREASED ACCOUNTABILITY FOR WHO

As the United Nations’ specialized health agency, the WHO sets internationally accepted guidelines for the treatment of disease and coordinates responses to disease outbreaks globally.

Both Katz and Nabarro pointed out that the public failings of the WHO became most apparent with its slow emergency response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

Katz presented ideas on what the WHO should do to improve their international emergency response capacity, and how to monitor reform efforts and hold the agency accountable “so that it remains the institution the global community needs it to be to protect the world – and the United States – from the next pandemic.”

Sen. Todd Young seated and questioning Katz.

“The prudent response to this checkered history is not to walk away from the WHO," said Young. "That would be unwise and even dangerous. The WHO’s mission is too important. Instead, we should seek consensus regarding the WHO’s shortcomings, hold the organization accountable, and work with persistence and a sense of urgency to correct its shortcomings and demand a more effective fulfillment of its important mission." 

“PANDEMICS DO NOT RESPECT NATIONAL BORDERS”

Katz emphasized the importance of a ready and professionally certified workforce that can be guided by the WHO.

“The bugs are always smarter than we are. It's hard to predict where the next virus will emerge,” she said. “The earlier you can detect something is happening, the earlier you can mount an initial response, the more lives you save.”

“In a public health crisis, when the number of cases of people with disease increases exponentially, it is absolutely essential to get resources in place early to deal with the problem at the very beginning.  It’s like dealing with a forest fire,” Nabarro said.

The importance of preparedness was a sentiment echoed by Young.

“As the Ebola crisis reminded us, pandemics do not respect national borders and the best way for governments to protect their own people is to work with the international community and assertively help other governments deal with outbreaks as early as possible,” Young said.  

PANDEMICS’ ECONOMIC TOLL

Katz also explored the economic toll of a pandemic. 

“A pandemic destroys over one percent of global GDP [the total value of goods produced and services provided in a country during one year], but financing pandemic preparedness costs about $1 per person per year,” she said.

“In a large-scale disease event, there can be a $3 to 5.8 trillion cost to the global economy,” she added. “US support is critical to strengthening WHO. We need a strong, well-funded WHO.”