The World Health Organization (WHO) will train a cadre of young epidemiologists to battle outbreaks like SARS, emulating a program that has long helped the US play a leadership role in public health, the organization's incoming director general has said.
The program will be modeled after the Epidemic Intelligence Service, a backbone of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Dr. Jong Wook-lee, a South Korean who was to become the WHO's director general yesterday, said in several interviews.
The American service's officers and graduates of its two-year training program often travel to the far corners of the world to provide public health assistance to countries affected by outbreaks like SARS, AIDS and Ebola or by natural disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes.
Creating a similar program would be a bold step for the WHO, a UN agency based in Geneva. It has traditionally focused more on convening independent experts for technical reviews and providing advice to its 192 member countries than serving as a rapid-response, action-oriented organization.
But the agency has often organized teams of epidemiologists from the US and elsewhere to control outbreaks, as it scrambled to do recently for SARS. In doing so, it has relied on the goodwill and budgets of other institutions, whose scientists put aside their own work to carry out those missions.
The plan for an epidemiology program reflects in part a May vote by representatives of member nations to give the agency a stronger hand in investigating outbreaks.
The WHO has also served as an umbrella agency to allow US epidemiologists to investigate outbreaks when, for diplomatic or other reasons, an American agency could not work comfortably in a particular country. Occasionally, the CDC has sent epidemiologists to countries that are not agency members, as with the SARS outbreak in Taiwan.
That epidemic underscored the need not only to battle epidemics but also to train future leaders in academic and research centers and health departments, as the CDC's program has done, Lee said.
"It's very clear that WHO needs to create a program like CDC's," he said. "For many years, people have dreamed about doing it, and so I decided, let's do it."
Initial reactions to Lee's plan were positive.
Dr. Peter Piot, the director of the UN AIDS program in Geneva, said he "would have done the same" if he had not lost to Lee in the election for director general of the WHO earlier this year. The proposed epidemiologic program would "strengthen systems to monitor diseases, which are weak in many countries, and bring more young people into WHO," he said.