Annabel Ferriman on questions for Margaret Chan

Annabel Ferriman The spread of A/H1N1 flu has propelled Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, into the limelight. On 11 June she was on television and radio programmes across the world, declaring that “the world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic” and that “further spread is considered inevitable” 

But what do we know about the 62 year old doctor who took over the reins of the behemoth on the death of Dr Lee Jong-wook in 2006? A profile of her in the Financial Times in May criticised her for not having a grand vision of reform and described her as a bureaucrat rather than a politician.

But it also quoted Julio Frenk, dean of Harvard School of Public Health, as saying: “For the kind of focused response [needed during an epidemic] she’s the best person we could possibly hope for.”

What do you think about Dr Chan’s handling of the crisis and her performance at the head of WHO? Does Dr Chan have a vision for the future? What should her priorities be for the next three to five years? Was she wrong to insist that swine flu be renamed A/H1N1 after pressure from the farming lobby? Do her Chinese roots prevent her from dealing firmly enough with the secrecy and violations of human rights of the Chinese government?

And, above all, has WHO overreacted to the threat from flu? Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian on 29 April: “The World Health Organization, always eager to push itself into the spotlight, loves to talk of the world being ‘ready’ for a flu pandemic, apparently on the grounds that none has occurred for some time . . . An obligation on public officials not to scare people or lead them to needless expense is overridden by the yearning for a higher budget or more profit”.

Now is your chance to put your questions to Dr Chan. The BMJ’s Hong Kong correspondent, Jane Parry, will conduct an interview with the WHO chief in July. She would welcome your questions.

  • Breda Synnott

    Considering the fact that asthma is such a common condition, have any H1N1 flu victims who have died had asthma. Did they have severe disease, or are those whose asthma is under control and fairly mild, at equal risk of dying from flu? Does the type of treatment asthmatics are taking influence the course of the flu?

  • Camilo Colaco

    On a recent vist to the US, I found that immigration checks at Miami now include fingerprinting of all fingers on both hands by placing hands in contact with a solid screen. I assume this is also the policy at other US airports (including international flight hubs such as Miami) and possibly other international airports too. Given thae know survival of infuenza virus on solid surfaces, this surely is a highly efficient way to spread the virus. Is the WHO taking any steps to address this extremely large but easily avoidable risk to the further spread of pandemic influenza (and other infectious diseases)? I would think even a simple multilingual notice to ‘wash your hands’ on the fingerprinting machines would make a significant impact.

  • I would like to ask Dr. Chan her thoughts on the omission of chronic disease prevention from the MDGs. Many groups are advocating for this inclusion. Most recently the International Diabetes Federation, International Union Against Cancer, and World Heart Federation issued a joint statement urging WHO to integrate NCD prevention into its global development agenda. The MDGs are the primary agenda at this time, and they represent laudable goals. They guide a majority of international donors in directing their gifts. Chronic disease prevention could be integrated into several of the MDGs, if not added as a separate goal. Is advocacy for this a waste of our effort and is there something else we should be doing that would bear fruit?
    Catherine, Coleman, Editor in Chief, ProCor
    ProCor is a global network promoting cardiovascular health in low-resource settings, and is a program of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation in Boston MA USA.