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WHO Director Chan: Improved Living Conditions Bring Rise of Noninfectious Diseases

Oct 1, 2015 – Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the Sustainable Development Goals announced at the United Nations General Assembly last week show how dramatically the world has changed in the past 15 years.

During a Global Futures lecture in the university’s Gaston Hall yesterday, Chan said that today’s health challenges are “bigger and more complex” than those that shaped the Millennium Development Goals.

“Instead of diseases vanishing as living conditions improve, social-economic progress is actually creating the conditions that favor the rise of noncommunicable diseases,” explained the director-general.

World's Greatest Killers

Margaret Chan speaks from a podium onstage in Gaston Hall.Chronic noncommunicable diseases have overtaken infectious diseases as the world’s greatest killers, said Chan, who has served as WHO director-general since 2006.

These illnesses are shaped by powerful forces – including climate change, antimicrobial resistance and globalized marketing of unhealthy products.

“The health sector alone cannot protect children from the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, persuade countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or get industrialized food producers to reduce their massive use of antibiotics,” Chan said.

As a result, “the world is ill-prepared to deal with these new threats,” she said.

Lessons of Ebola

Chan previously served as director of health of Hong Kong, where she managed outbreaks of avian influenza and of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

At Georgetown, she talked about what the Ebola epidemic has taught the world.

“The WHO and international community were too slow to recognize the explosive potential of the Ebola outbreak,” she said.

Chan noted the reforms WHO is implementing to ensure a better response to future outbreaks, including fast-tracked regulatory approvals of generic clinical trials, deployment of supplies and procurement of funds.

But she said “we have not seen the worst case scenario yet” in terms of pandemics, which could involve an airborne disease with few signs of illness during the incubation period.

“It is in our collective interest to get the world better prepared, to learn all the lessons from Ebola, so that the people of this world can be protected,” Chan said. 

Global Futures Lecture Series

Chan’s lecture, “Governance: Global Health’s 21st Century Challenge,” included a moderated conversation with John Monahan, the university’s senior advisor for global health to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia.

“From health emergencies like Ebola to the rise of diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases in the developing world, the global community is facing unprecedented governance challenges,” Monahan said. “Dr. Chan has been at the center of these critical debates, and we are delighted she shared her experience with Georgetown faculty and students.”

The event continues a semester-long conversation about “The Global Future of Governance,” convened by Georgetown’s Global Futures Initiative. The next Global Futures lecture will be by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who will speak at Georgetown on Oct. 28.