ROME, JANUARY 13 – Should Flavia Bustreo succeed in taking over the helm from current Director Margaret Chan now at the end of her second term, the World Health Organization may become a little bit more Italian. Themes that are often considered as “collateral”, such as the environment and clean energy, food security and the role of women, sustainable growth and vaccination, will come to the forefront.
It might be a revolution from within: Bustreo, from Padua, has been general Vice Director of the WHO for the Health of Families, Women and Children since 2010 and is now Italy’s official candidate to lead the UN’s organization for the next five years, which, as she told Onuitalia, will be replete with challenges and commitments. On Thursday, the feisty and outspoken candidate showcased in Rome a political agenda which she hopes will sway the votes of the UN’s executive council in her favor in January, when the pool of contenders will be downsized to five, and then to three upon a second review, prior to the final election by the WHO Assembly in March 2017.
Her vision for the future of the organization is articulated in five key points, but its cornerstone, which is culturally very ‘Italian’, is healthcare as a right for every individual. Bustreo points out that Italy was among the first countries to assert health as a right and that, although in time, many countries have followed suit, “it is not enough” she remarked “when only half of the WHO member countries specify this right in their constitutions. Italy does it”. At a time when President-elect Donald Trump plans to steer U.S. healthcare in the opposite direction, it is all the more important to set universal healthcare coverage as a goal.
Another key concept that Bustreo includes in what would characterize her leadership is the theme of equality – leaving no one behind. “Despite a slight improvement in emerging countries, healthcare inequalities are growing deeper” she explains, “and this is true of communities and countries that are generally considered to be ‘healthy’. For example, maternal mortality rates in the poorest neighborhoods of New York City are akin to those recorded in Haiti – an alarm bell signaling there is much work to be done on this front.”
Additionally, the WHO’s response to emergencies, such as epidemics and disease outbreaks, must be improved and monitoring systems must be strengthened with communication networks capable of effectively relaying information between countries’ central and peripheral areas. Bustreo recalls that “during the Ebola outbreak, WHO was accused of a slow response…for six months, the countries that were affected the most, essentially denied it, causing delays to the entire response process. We must now correct these flaws and strengthen the system of scientific evidence – in a world that is all too often swayed by social media – with rigorous procedures, and make good use of the centers of excellence in our country”.
Bustreo would also like to introduce practices that are new to the WHO: she explains that “In addition to governments and health departments, I’d like to work with NGOs and religious and non religious organizations that are already on the field. In Africa, there are dozens of non-profit organizations that work behind the scenes to the benefit of the population’s health. During the three years I spent in Sudan, it was common knowledge that the best hospital for women and children was the one run by the Comboni Missionary Sisters. Can we afford to ignore these facts?”
Bustreo shares some of the issues she would like to target should she become the future head of the WHO. “First off, it is essential to mitigate the impact of climate change in every way we can; climbing temperatures lead to draughts, flooding, and the presence of insects, such as infection-carrying mosquitoes (Zika, malaria, dengue, etc.), capable of spreading disease across the globe, food insecurity, malnutrition and polluted air and water”. According to the WHO, of the six million children in the world who die before age five, half of them suffered from malnutrition. Projects to counter these plights include “health care systems that contribute to the reduction of gas emissions” favoring renewable sources of energy.
Bustreo’s plans for women’s health, with a special focus on breast and cervical cancer, lie at the core of her proposals. She explains that “in our experience, from 1990 to 2015, maternal mortality rates have significantly dropped from 500,000 to 300,000 cases and although this is a vast improvement, there has been no progress in women who, after surviving childbirth, develop cancer over time. Moreover, many low-income countries, fail to observe guidelines that have been set in place for example, for the prevention and treatment of uterine cancer. In the industrialized countries of the West, there are vaccines against the papilloma virus, mass screening, and in case of illness, treatment. In Latin America none of this exists”.
Finally, on the topic of vaccines, Bustreo – who is also Vice President of the Gavi Alliance for Vaccines – is adamant in denouncing social networks for emphasizing, in Italy and other countries, the alleged dangers of vaccines. She remarks that “even in Northern Europe, a negative attitude is gaining ground…I believe it’s because, now that they are no longer around, we have forgotten how dangerous certain illnesses are. Does anyone know what happens when someone catches diphtheria? Personally, I am in favor of a bold intervention, and I will promote this message in all my meetings with their representatives and associations”. Furthermore, she admits “I would like to see lowered costs for vaccines”.
The Italian government fully endorsed Flavia Bustreo, whose running mates for the WHO presidency include four men – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia, Philippe Douste-Blazy from France, David Nabarro from the UK – and another woman, Sania Nishtar, from Pakistan. During the presentation of her agenda in Rome, Bustreo used bold words. “The right to health for everyone is not a utopia; it can develop into reality with political commitment and human and financial resources capable of providing adequate healthcare.” she said. “Italy is a good example regarding the promotion of the right to health as a fundamental right of all individuals, regardless of origin, religion, political inclination, and socioeconomic condition. Italy has always excelled as one of the world’s best systems in terms of granting universal access to healthcare, as sanctioned and safeguarded by its constitution. In Italy, maternal mortality rates are among the lowest in the world and life-expectancy is second only to Japan” Bustreo explained.
“Recently,” she added, “Italy has also been recognized as a center of excellence in the management of emergencies, such as the recent Ebola outbreak. Our country has good lessons to impart on a global level in terms of healthcare management and efficiency, and it is an honor for me to represent such excellence as a candidate for the leadership of the World Health Organization.” (MNT/VB)