The administration gave formal notice that the U.S. will withdraw from the World Health Organization. This decision will weaken our collective ability to respond in a coordinated, global manner to the COVID-19 pandemic and affect our global health security.
Here is what else is at stake:
- A Surge in Polio Cases: The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is embedded in WHO and has decreased the number of wild poliovirus cases by 99.9% since 1988, from an estimated 350,000 cases to just 176 in 2019. WHO leads surveillance, immunization, and technical support, and is able to reach remote areas in countries where polio still exists. Without these detection capabilities, polio could surge to 200,000 cases annually within a decade. Rotary International’s 1.2 million members have been leading supporters of polio eradication; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are the other core partners. A U.S. withdrawal from WHO and/or a large reduction in funding would be highly disruptive and postpone the longstanding goal of polio eradication.
- Compromise the World’s Infectious Disease Early Warning System: Early detection allows countries to stop disease outbreaks at their source before they spread farther and become deadlier and more expensive to contain. WHO has issued guidelines to help countries sustain immunization activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several key global programs fighting infectious disease threats are now impeded by the pandemic and would be devastated by the loss of U.S. funding and by the personnel and programmatic disruptions caused by a U.S. withdrawal from WHO. U.S. assessed and voluntary contributions together represented approximately 16% of WHO’s total revenue in the 2018-2019 biennium.
- Access to Flu Data that Protects Americans: Among the most immediate potential impacts of the withdrawal, the move would for the first time cut the U.S. government out of the development of the seasonal influenza vaccine for the Southern Hemisphere. This process is coordinated by the WHO in partnership with the U.S. Since 2004, the U.S. has helped build a global network of WHO flu centers, buying lab equipment and training scientists. The centers in more than 100 countries collect samples from sick people, isolate the viruses and search for any new viruses that could cause an epidemic or pandemic. The CDC houses one of five WHO Collaborating Centers that collect these virus samples, while the FDA runs one of the four WHO regulatory labs that help vaccine makers determine the correct amount of antigen, which triggers the immune response, to include in vaccines. The CDC could lose access to the data and virus samples that protects Americans from potentially deadly strains of flu from around the world.
- Harm the U.S. Economy: Without U.S. government funding for WHO, other countries, especially in the developing world, will have less capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to health threats. In a globalized world, this inevitably jeopardizes the health security of Americans and our country’s economic and trade interests.
- Increase in Malaria Deaths: A new analysis has determined that COVID-19 could lead to a doubling in the number of malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, a return to malaria mortality levels last seen 20 years ago. WHO has called for minimizing interruptions to malaria prevention and treatment services during the pandemic. Disruptions in WHO’s Global Malaria Program caused by U.S. withdrawal of funding or membership will delay the effort to achieve a malaria-free world.
- Measles Immunization Campaigns Delayed: Measles is one of the world’s most infectious and deadly diseases. WHO is the key implementing agency in the Measles & Rubella Initiative with its disease surveillance networks, vaccination campaigns, and technical expertise. As COVID-19 continues to spread globally, over 117 million children in 37 countries may miss out on receiving life-saving measles vaccine. Measles immunization campaigns in 24 countries have already been delayed; more will be postponed. Withdrawal of U.S. funding or membership in WHO would further upset these efforts and delay the goal of achieving and maintaining a world without measles, rubella and congenital rubella syndrome.
- Weaken PEPFAR: The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was started by President Bush with bipartisan support in 2003. PEPFAR relies on and helps countries implement WHO’s treatment guidelines for HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR and WHO work together to enhance programs in areas including lab capacity, prevention of mother to child transmission, TB/HIV, health systems strengthening, and counseling and testing. U.S. withdrawal of funding and/or membership in WHO would have a negative impact on the ability of WHO’s HIV/AIDS Program to support what has been PEPFAR’s remarkable success in saving millions of lives.