Director-General's Office

WHO Director-General launches the European Medical Corps

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Keynote address at the inauguration of the European Medical Corps
Brussels, Belgium

15 February 2016

When I was a young medical doctor I used to deliver babies. The baby we are delivering today is a very healthy baby.

The response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has likely been the most intense logistical operation against an infectious disease since smallpox was pushed down to its last case in the Horn of Africa in 1979.

When the outbreak began more than two years ago, the world and WHO were ill-prepared to mount a response on such a monumental scale. At the start, we had too little of everything, including medical teams. This changed, with support from the European Union playing a decisive role to turn around the Ebola outbreak in West Africa..

Your support was massive. It ranged from the provision of experts and medical teams, to the construction of dedicated treatment centres and bases for operations, from the training of European civil society organizations, to the use of military aircraft and ships that rushed in desperately needed mobile laboratories, motorcycles, and huge quantities of equipment and supplies.

The support you provided facilitated the response well beyond the European region. Your work to guarantee medical evacuation and care for responders opened the door for the deployment of emergency medical teams and public health experts from all around the world.

The Ebola outbreak was a very brutal wake-up call. The world must never again be caught by surprise, so ill-prepared to cope. All that can be prepared in advance must be done with the utmost urgency.

As part of this preparedness, delegates at last year’s World Health Assembly asked me to create a global health emergency workforce. The inauguration of the European Medical Corps is a groundbreaking milestone in achieving that objective. It is the culmination of joint WHO/EU work over the past year to establish standards for quality assurance, classify, and register emergency medical teams.

The Corps we are launching today makes a visible and highly effective contribution to the global health emergency workforce. Thank all of you for all you have done. It embodies far more than public health expertise and medical teams.

It includes medical evacuation teams, logistics teams with the skills to rebuild damaged hospitals, incident managers and information managers as well as mobile laboratories and their supplies. I congratulate you on making the first contribution to the global workforce and also on being the model for others to follow.

The foundation of a public health system able to respond to outbreaks and emergencies resides at the national level. The European Medical Corps and its “voluntary pool” draw on national capacity for a domestic response that can be offered to others faced with an emergency. Extremely important not just as a regional response capacity but also when global response is needed.

Emergency responses that augment national capacity with regional capacity are always more timely, predictable, efficient, and appropriate.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What the EU and WHO are now jointly doing brings order to a situation that grew chaotic as the number, scale, and severity of health emergencies reached unprecedented levels.

The establishment of the European Medical Corps draws on lessons from the Ebola outbreak but also on earlier lessons from the response to sudden onset emergencies, like earthquakes, floods, and tropical storms.

A turning point occurred five years ago, when the earthquake in Haiti brought a massive influx of poorly qualified, uncoordinated, and ill-equipped responders. In the view of many, the Haiti response was a clear case of emergency assistance that did more harm than good.

To end the chaos, a global system was put in place to assure the quality of emergency medical teams, classify their skills, and register them as part of global preparedness for sudden onset disasters. The system allows a quick and close match of specific teams with specific needs and closes the door to uncoordinated and inappropriate assistance.

The system made a night-and-day difference in the responses to typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, cyclone Pam in Vanuatu, and the earthquake in Nepal, where 98% of the 149 medical teams were registered and jointly coordinated by WHO and the Ministry of Health and Population.

These later examples illustrate the power of a global health workforce and the difference it can make. This is global solidarity. Together, we will never allow another virus to run out of control. We owe it to the more than 11,000 people who died from Ebola to be better prepared.

I am fully confident that the European Medical Corps will mark a sea-change in global preparedness for outbreaks and emergencies.

Again, this is an achievement with an impact that extends well beyond Europe. Your work is being closely followed by similar efforts in South-East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific Region.

Many of you mentioned Zika as the next global crisis. Ebola and Zika have many differences. Ebola is one of the most lethal pathogens on this planet. Zika is not known to be a killer. Since Ebola first emerged in 1976, we have learned a lot about this disease. We know very little about Zika and are just beginning to see its tricks.

The risk is widespread. Zika is transmitted primarily by mosquitoes of the Aedes aegypti species resident in many equatorial and sub-tropical countries.

These mosquitoes can breed in very small containers, like a plastic cup or a bottle cap. Responsibility for mosquito control rests with every household. Two-thirds of these mosquitoes reside in households and not outdoors. Every household must help with removing breeding sites. The government cannot do this on its own.

On present knowledge, Zika causes a mild disease in most people, and 80% of those infected show no symptoms. Most recover. We are very worried about pregnant women. If they get infected with the virus, they may give birth to babies with small heads or with other neurological complications. The science is not yet definitive but the evidence is getting stronger and stronger.

On 1 February, WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern because of what we don’t know about the disease and the virus and its possible association with birth defects. Can you imagine the stress, the anxiety, and the heart-breaking experience of families who have babies with small heads. These babies are not easy to raise and they create a heavy burden for the family and the community.

WHO was asked to make this declaration on the advice of experts. WHO’s job is to coordinate the world’s best talents to develop the science that clarifies the link.

Let me mention in particular the case study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine. This was a series of very sophisticated investigations undertaken by European experts. That study gives us the strongest evidence yet about the possible link between infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.

Ebola required massive logistical support and mobilization of teams and tonnes of supplies. Zika requires massive mobilization of community action. For now, mosquito control is our most immediate line of defence.

We must also give women the information that empowers them to make some difficult decisions. Evidence is now sufficiently strong that we are advising pregnant women to consider delaying travel to countries where the virus is circulating. It is also important that returning travellers do not donate blood. European countries have very good guidelines for keeping the blood supply safe.

Zika is not a deadly disease like Ebola, but it is a disease that causes heart-breaking events for families.

Thank you.