World Health Organization needs ‘major reform,’ says HSPH prof.

Barry R. Bloom

Barry R. Bloom

July 29, 2011

The World Health Organization (WHO) needs major reform to regain its leadership as a trusted provider of scientific and technical knowledge, according to Barry Bloom, Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson Professor of Public Health at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), who has been associated with WHO in various capacities for 44 years.

Bloom (pictured), a former HSPH dean, recently wrote a commentary, “WHO Needs Change,” that appeared in the journal Nature. He was invited by Nature to write the article after the journal Foreign Policy recently published an article by Dr. Jack Chow entitled “Is the WHO Becoming Irrelevant.”

A United Nations agency created in 1948 to direct and coordinate international health work, WHO is increasingly ineffective and facing a fiscal crisis as it now competes with thousands of other agencies, non-profits and private sector groups that have since sprouted up, Bloom wrote. In some cases, these newer groups are more effective in targeting global public health issues. For example, WHO’s slow and inadequate response to the recent Haiti’s cholera epidemic and slow pace of funding projects or approving drugs and vaccines are among the reasons why the agency has come under attack in recent years for being “ineffective, bureaucratic and politi­cal … and for lacking modern scientific and technical expertise,” he wrote.

WHO today is not the vigorous organization Bloom recalls from earlier in his career. “I’m enormously grateful for what WHO did for me personally in shaping my career,” he said in an interview. For instance, he fondly recalls the 1960s when he and several other international scientists were brought together by WHO to apply new research findings that resulted in improved treatment for leprosy patients in India. Later, WHO sent Bloom back to India to teach the nation’s first immunology course to 28 enthusiastic students. It was a “life changing experience” that shaped his career as an infectious disease and vaccine specialist and global public health leader, said Bloom, who currently chairs WHO’s Technical and Research Advisory Committee to the Global Programme on Malaria.

With the number of governments, private companies, non-governmental organizations, and foundations today, the world needs an organization to convene the best expertise and provide a centralized resource for health-related knowledge, he said. “WHO must reinvent itself as this resource. It must re-establish the trust of the international community by improving the transparency of its governance and financ­ing, and by speeding up its responsiveness to countries’ needs,” Bloom wrote.

“The planet still needs an effective World Health Organization—if a very different one from the one created 63 years ago. Organi­zational transformation is difficult, but just a few key changes could help the WHO to become a farsighted leader, not a lagger, in global health,” he said.

–Marge Dwyer

Photo: Richard Friedman