On May 23, health ministers from around the world will gather in Geneva to vote for a new Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). It’s a hugely important election for the whole of Africa and the wider world.
The WHO determines how the international community responds to the growing threat of deadly diseases and pandemics, and helps people everywhere get access to the health care they need.
There has been huge progress in making the world a healthier place.
Major killers like malaria and polio have been dramatically reduced. Last year, malaria deaths were halved in six high burden countries. But the WHO also needs an upgrade so it can respond to the challenges the world faces better and more quickly.
The election of a new Director-General is a real opportunity to see positive change.
Our world is challenged by a changing climate, violent conflict, persistent poverty and poor nutrition. And of course none of us are immune to killer diseases.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa showed how diseases can devastate communities, and have a lasting impact on whole countries. Worryingly we have just seen this terrible illness re-emerge in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However swift and decisive action by the government of the DRC to ask for help will undoubtedly save lives.
Leading the global fight against Ebola in 20014/15 was UN special envoy Dr David Nabarro. He is now running in this election to become WHO Director-General. Through my work as a Trustee of the GISAID and as a Patron of the WCPRC, I have been exposed to the work Dr Nabarro has done in support of Africa.
Dr Nabarro’s experience is unrivalled - he has spent over 40 years in international public health as a medical doctor, educator, international public servant and diplomat.
He has worked in over 50 countries, including Zambia, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa. He has worked with farmers and food processors, in clinics and in hospitals.
I know he understands there is huge potential - for agriculture and sustainable energy, for industry and services, for tourism and ecology.
His work in Zambia for example was mainly on nutrition, working with government and civil society on the Scale Up Nutrition programme. A healthy society also means a healthy economy which is vital for the future of many countries across Africa.
Whoever runs the WHO must also have proven experience in responding to emergencies and infectious disease outbreaks, such as Ebola and malaria. He or she will need to command the respect of many thousands of hard working and dedicated health professionals, including midwives, nurses, pharmacists, laboratory workers, first responders and all kinds of doctors.
If Dr Nabarro is elected, I feel confident that the WHO will have the technical expertise and leadership it needs to tackle a global health emergency.
Of course there are challenges, some really serious, with many people experiencing poverty, hardship (especially women and children) and suffering.
Africa’s people bear the brunt of the world’s disease burden, yet have access to only 1% of the world’s health workers.
But governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), development partners and enterprises are working hard to build the systems people need.
Too many people across this great continent face preventable death, disease and suffering in their daily lives. And it is the poorest and most vulnerable people who struggle the most.
They are often blocked from access to good health care, exposed to disease-prone environments or left with no choice but to drink unsafe water.
It is unacceptable that in Nigeria for example about 800 000 children and 40 000 mothers die each year from avoidable causes, and that disease such as malaria, meningitis, measles and others continue to claim lives. We need a system that works for everyone.
Many countries across Africa also face a double burden - along with infectious disease threats there are an increasing number of people struggling with non-communicable or so-called “lifestyle” diseases.
These are conditions like diabetes, obesity and cancer, which can be treated or prevented, saving potentially millions both financially and literally.
Doing more to address these challenges is one of Dr Nabarro’s top priorities should he become WHO’s Director-General.
Equally, when it comes to finances, WHO’s decisions are important for business and economies. Absence because of illness for example can leave employers with a heavy burden of millions or even billions in some countries.
The best health security systems and programmes will help prevent and reduce illness and keep us as safe as possible from disease.
In today’s global and interconnected world, with an increasing population, new diseases, deadly outbreaks and resurging threats from old ones now resistant to antibiotics, health must be a top priority on the international agenda.
WHO Director-General is a challenging and important role.
It is huge, and it matters to everyone throughout our world, perhaps to those of us in Africa more than most. We have made great progress in improving the health of our people, but poor health remains a major driver of poverty here. A healthy, well-educated population is critical to our growth and development.
As Director-General of WHO Dr Nabarro will ensure that WHO plays a strong role in contributing to Africa’s future successes.
As a medical professional and political negotiator he has seen it all, including nearly being blown up in the UN HQ bombing in Baghdad in 2003.
I would urge our esteemed leaders to put the interests of our citizens first and vote for the best candidate. In my opinion that is Dr David Nabarro.
I hope our Minister of Health and other African governments make the right and proper decision and elect David, a friend of Africa, as the next DG of the WHO.
Dr Iqbal Survé is a medical doctor, Trustee of GISAID, Patron of the WCPRC, and Chairman of Sekunjalo group and Independent Media