Credible Voice: WHO-Beijing and the SARS Crisis

ABSTRACT

MSPH-13-0004.0. This case study takes students into the Beijing office of the World Health Organization as it dealt with the SARS crisis in early 2003. The WHO serves as the world’s monitor of disease outbreak and control. It is able to mobilize legions of the world’s best scientists to analyze, diagnose, prescribe treatments for and contain diseases. However, it depends on the cooperation of the countries experiencing an outbreak. What happens when that cooperation is limited or nonexistent? How can intergovernmental organizations be most effective?  

WHO Country Director Dr. Henk Bekedam finds himself and his office in the eye of the storm as global concern builds over the virulent spread of an unknown disease, eventually named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The disease seems to have originated in China, yet the Chinese government—in the midst of a leadership transition—is stingy with details. Bekedam must walk a fine line between his role as advisor to the China Ministry of Health, and his responsibility to inform the global community. This tension comes to a head in a press conference on April 16, 2003, when Bekedam must make a split-second decision.

Use the case to examine the role and responsibilities of international public health officials. Look in particular at the WHO and the accountability of its country offices and directors. Students should consider what it takes to be simultaneously a scientist and diplomat. Look also at the complex relationship between WHO and the media, and discuss how it can benefit both parties. Finally, ask students to consider how science and politics intersect, and how scientists, public health officials, and politicians can work together to produce effective policy.

Use this case in a course/class on international public health; intergovernmental organizations; crisis management or media relations.

Credits

This case was written by Kirsten Lundberg, Director, Case Consortium @ Columbia, for the Mailman School of Public Health. The faculty sponsor was the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and Professor of Neurology and Pathology Ian Lipkin of Mailman. (0313)

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