School of Population Health

SPHCM global health experts join response to defend the World Health Organization

Defend WHO

In a joint statement by the Australian Network for WHO Collaborating Centres, 22 Australian global health experts from Australian WHO Collaborating Centres respond to the USA de-funding the World Health Organization (WHO).

Signatories from the SPHCM include: Professor Rebecca Ivers, Head of the SPHCM and Co-Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre in Injury Prevention and Trauma Care; Professor Siaw-Teng Liaw, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on eHealth; and, Professor Jacqui Webster, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Population Salt Reduction. 

WHO Collaborating Centres play a critical role in building resilient health systems, and tackling some of the biggest public health challenges facing the global community, including some of the world's most vulnerable populations.

The SPHCM endorses the following statement by the Alliance: 

"The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a huge threat to public health. This is predominantly because the virus knows no geographic or political boundaries, its mode and rapidity of spread is being investigated in real time during the epidemic, and this poses completely new challenges to health systems. Governments are implementing control measures at different stages and attempting as best they can to communicate the risks of transmission, even though these messages (and the underpinning evidence) changes from week to week.

In this context, it is particularly distressing that the USA has abruptly ceased their funding to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is true that the USA is the leading contributor to WHO, but to remove this funding suddenly and in the middle of a pandemic seems rather callous and introspective. This seems to have been a random decision on the part of the US government, with no thought for its global consequences.

If we don’t work together in addressing COVID-19 its impact will be much greater and longer lasting, resulting in sustained morbidity and mortality, prolonged economic recession, and a breakdown of trust and communication among nations. This single action by the US government will have dire consequences, and must be reversed.

We write this as a group of many WHO Collaborating Centres across Australia and New Zealand. We are not all involved in infectious diseases, but work as Collaborating Centres across major health issues and health systems to improve health in our region and beyond. We work with WHO and have been designated as Collaborating Centres, but in countries like Australia we are not funded by WHO. Nonetheless, we are unanimous in thinking that this de-funding of WHO is a global health disaster, will result in thousands of additional and potentially preventable deaths from COVID-19. In addition, other critical WHO programs, such as immunisation against polio or measles, will also immediately suffer from budget cuts. Immediate advocacy efforts should be brought to bear on the US government to rescind their decision.

At the time of writing, over 2 million people across the world have acquired the infection in a few short weeks. In some countries control measures are working quite well, but particularly in low income countries, the early stage of the epidemic is being experienced, and much worse is yet to come. Although Australia and New Zealand appear to be flattening the epidemic curve (reducing the number of new cases of COVID-19 each day), other countries are in more trouble, particularly if the epidemic numbers threaten to overwhelm their health system’s capacity.

WHO has a key role in global health, notably in infectious disease and epidemic control, where the education and training, developing resources and messages, and continuously updating and communicating control strategies forms a central backbone to the global response. For low income countries, WHO may be the only information source for Health Departments to act. WHO helps to explain transmission, summarises the early symptoms, and explains the need for social distancing in a way that is understood and can be implemented in every country. WHO provides a network of in-country contacts that communicate and disseminate changes to the message or to the evidence.

These public health actions save many thousands of lives. Thus to reduce the capacity of WHO at this particular time is particularly troubling, because our collective response is critical to attenuate the global and trans-border transmission of COVID-19 cases." 

Full list of signatories and more about the Alliance.

The SPHCM is a designated WHO Collaborating Centre on eHealth, with Professor Siaw-Teng Liaw as the Director. More about the WHO Collaborating Centre on eHealth.

More about the WHO Collaborating Centre for Population Salt Reduction.

More about the WHO Collaborating Centre in Injury Prevention and Trauma Care.

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School of Public Health and Community Medicine