Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Global Health Gets a Checkup

A Conversation With Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

The World Health Organization was established in 1948 as a specialized agency of the United Nations charged with improving global public health, coordinating the international response to epidemics, and the like. In the ensuing decades, its dedicated staff has served on the frontlines of public health battles, from the eradication of smallpox to the fight against AIDs to the challenges of noncommunicable diseases. In May, the WHO’s member countries elected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as its new director general. A malaria researcher, Tedros, as he is known, served as the health minister of Ethiopia from 2005 to 2012 and as foreign minister from 2012 to 2016. He spoke with Foreign Affairs’ deputy managing editor Stuart Reid in New York in July.

What keeps you up at night?

Epidemics or pandemics. Immediately after the First World War, in 1918, the world encountered the Spanish flu. It was airborne and killed more than 50 million people. Ebola is lousy compared to that. That sometimes keeps me awake at night, because we have to do a lot, especially considering the serious gaps we have. I think the world should unite and focus on strong health systems to prepare the whole world to prevent epidemics—or if there is an outbreak, to manage it quickly—because viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.

What do you see as the WHO’s core mission?

The WHO has a responsibility to prevent, early-detect, and manage outbreaks, and it can do this by strengthening countries’ capacity. But we have to do more. Ebola has already shown the weaknesses that we have. So the WHO should start by strengthening epidemiological surveillance and investing in countries’ health systems.

Viruses don’t respect borders, and they don’t need visas.

You’ve identified health coverage as one of your top priorities. What does that mean in practice?

About a third of countries are covered, a third are progressing towards universal health coverage, and the last third haven’t started. We will focus on speed

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