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New WHO Chief: Planned U.S. Funding Cuts Not a 'Closed Issue'

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was looking forward to further talks with the United States

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, newly elected director general of the World Health Organization, answers questions of the journalists at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, May 24, 2017, photo: Keystone/Martial Trezzini, via AP
7 months ago

GENEVA – The new head of the World Health Organization (WHO) doesn’t believe the Trump administration’s calls to slash funding for international aid and U.N. agencies like his is a “closed issue.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian ex-health minister, said he was looking forward to further talks with the United States, WHO’s biggest donor.

“I wouldn’t take it as a final issue,” he told reporters on Wednesday, the day after his election to a five-year term by WHO member countries. “I have worked with both Republicans and Democrats and if we can communicate with them the right way … I think we can also address that.”

Tedros added that WHO needs to “move fast” in addressing the budget issues, such as through increasing support from groups like the World Bank and the Global Fund. Tedros officially takes over July 1 from outgoing WHO director-general Dr. Margaret Chan, who is ending a 10-year tenure.

He also expressed hopes to expand the base of donor countries, which could be a “shock absorber” if funding shrinks, explaining that some countries had told him during his campaign that they would give to WHO at levels “like what the U.S., U.K. and other countries” provide in voluntary contributions.

In response to a news agency’s story story this week that found WHO routinely spends about $200 million per year on travel expenses — more than it spends on AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined — Tedros said it was important for the agency to cut its overhead costs, but that travel was an integral part of WHO’s work.

“Any travel costs, as long as they can be justified because of the program, it’s fine,” he said. “If it’s really an unnecessary expense, then it has to be stopped [but] if it’s necessary, it’s fine.” He declined to say whether he would change the rules that allow WHO staffers to book perks like business class airplane tickets and stays in five-star hotels.

Tedros said that one of WHO’s ability to respond to dangerous disease outbreaks had improved following the blunders it made during the response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, but that more work was still necessary.

In the last weeks of his campaign to become WHO’s next director-general, Larry Gostin, an adviser to his rival, Dr. David Nabarro, raised concerns about whether Tedros was a suitable leader, accusing him of covering up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia. Gostin said he still had worries about Tedros’ impending leadership and called for him to become “a champion of transparency.”

“Given the failure to accurately identify and report cholera to WHO by his home country, Dr. Tedros needs to be very clear that he will call out countries that fail to abide by WHO norms of honest and transparent disease reporting,” Gostin said in an email. “He will need to make clear that he will stand up for human rights and call out any country, including his own, that violate human rights.”

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