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WHO appoints a new Director General: What does it mean for India?

42840567 - chiangmai, thailand - february 26, 2015: world health organization homepage through a magnifying glass. who is a specialized agency of the un that is concerned with international public health. Copyright: <a href=''>aradaphotography / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
The WHO has appointed its new Director General.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a new Director General – apparently with the support of India. But what does his election mean for the country?

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – a 52-year-old Ethiopian academic and politician – was elected to the position on May 23, following a reportedly “tense vote” by secret ballot of WHO member states. He will be the first African to hold the post of WHO Director-General.

Tedros is set to take office on July 1. He will succeed Margaret Chen, who has occupied the post since 2007. Tedros previously served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012, and then as its Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2016.

J. P. Nadda, the Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare in India, says “India looks forward to working with the new Director-General…to build a strong, resilient health system, especially in developing countries.”

Such action would certainly be welcome. India is considered “the pharmacy of the developing world.”  It is also emerging as a world leader in digital healthcare.

India still falls behind in many key areas of healthcare, however – a state of affairs at odds with India’s status as a burgeoning economic powerhouse. This was highlighted recently by the country’s poor showing in The Lancet’s “healthcare access and quality index.” India placed 154th out of 195 countries – outranked by the likes of Syria, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.

One of the major obstacles India faces is its dual burden of disease, in that it has a high burden of both infectious diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as respiratory illnesses and cancer.

Compounding this is the restricted access to healthcare endured by many Indians. This is due in part to staff shortages and a lack of resources. A 2015 study found that India has just one doctor for every 11,528 people and government hospitals claim just one bed for every 1,833 patients.

Public spending on healthcare in India is also very low. This is despite Union budget pledges to boost health spending from the paltry 1.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)where it has been hovering around the past few years, to 2.5 percent.  Many are forced to pay out of pocket for medical treatment as a result.

Such realities are not enough to stymie Nadda’s optimism that India will achieve a number of lofty ambitions – including its sustainable development goals (SDGs) and universal healthcare.  Close links with the Director General-elect might go a long way towards achieving those goals, as suggests

“India is seen in the WHO as one of the natural leaders of the South and is usually heard with attention. India can possibly provide leadership to the South in pressing for decisions at the WHO that promote the interests of the South. Such interests range from promoting WHO’s role in access to medicines by addressing trade and intellectual property barriers, pressing for technology transfer and capacity building in areas where the South remains deficient, and measures that curb the interests of mainly multinational corporations from the North in industries related to medicines, food and beverages, alcohol and tobacco.”

It remains, of course, to be seen as to what becomes of the WHO in the coming five years under Tedros’s leadership. The organisation faces money shortages, as well as accusations of ineffectuality and irrelevance. This is not to mention the seemingly endless gamut of humanitarian crises – from famine to civil war – obstructing its work across the globe.

What can be said, however, is that India perhaps has a newfound influence in the WHO. If this is true, India might do well to capitalise upon links to those states, in order to forge closer ties with Tedros – a potential way of propelling the country further towards global health leader.

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