Ebola virus

Hong Kong health experts laud outgoing WHO chief Margaret Chan for her achievements despite Ebola crisis errors

Director-general of UN agency, who will step down next month, admits to its slow response during outbreak in final address to WHO member states

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 7:27pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 May, 2017, 7:54pm

Outgoing World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has made significant achievements during her decade in the United Nations agency, according to health experts in Hong Kong, despite Chan admitting to mistakes made during the Ebola epidemic.

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Making her final address to WHO’s member states on Monday, Chan, a former Hong Kong director of health who took up the international role in 2006, acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings in the way it handled the outbreak in Africa, which started in 2013 and killed more than 11,300 people.

“The outbreak took everyone, including the WHO, by surprise,” said Chan, who will step down on June 30.
“WHO was too slow to recognise that the virus, during its first appearance in West Africa, would behave very differently than during past outbreaks in central Africa.”

But she pointed to a wide range of reforms initiated at the height of the crisis, saying that the UN health agency had “made quick course corrections” and brought the outbreak “under control, and gave the world its first Ebola vaccine”.

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“I saw it as my duty to do everything possible to ensure that a tragedy on this scale would not happen again,” Chan told the delegates, adding that “history would judge” if she had succeeded.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said Chan had picked a good timing to admit the error as the Ebola outbreak was now contained.

“The international community has long criticised her for the delay and underestimation over the epidemic, and admitting it now is a good thing as the lesson could go on the record and allow future leaders to learn from it,” Ho said.

A number of top experts have also applauded Chan on her determination to tackle the issue of antibiotic resistance as the World Health Assembly – the WHO’s policymaking body – endorsed a global action plan in antimicrobial resistance, the most urgent drug resistance trend, in May 2015.

Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious diseases expert from HKU, said Chan had made the right decision in pushing for the work against antimicrobial resistance, which he regarded as an “extremely important” public health issue.

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Dr Lam Tai-hing, a public health professor at the same university, also agreed that Chan had contributed to increasing global concern on the superbug topic.

“If it had not been brought to such a high level, no one would be that concerned over the topic,” Lam said.

He added that Chan had successfully brought national leaders together to commit to the prevention and control of major non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes. In 2012, a political declaration was passed by United Nations member states to show their determination on the issue.

“That was very historical and we are still affected by that ... If a president has committed to tobacco control, measures could be [put in place] easier and it would be more effective than [if it was] just a health minister pushing the policy,” Lam said.

But he said the problem of inadequate funding at WHO had not improved significantly during Chan’s term.

HKU microbiologist Ho added that Chan also had a number of accomplishments under her belt in other public health areas, including the renewal of international health regulation in 2007, which subsequent helped the international community to prevent and respond to cross-border public health risks such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome, and the Zika virus.

Chan was also a proponent of hand hygiene, particularly in hospitals, which Ho said resulted in a lot of lives saved as engaging in the practice helped to stop the transmission of infectious diseases, especially in low-income countries.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse