May 24, 2017 / 11:32 AM / 2 months ago

New WHO head seeks U.S. bipartisan support for global health

Newly elected Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 24, 2017.Denis Balibouse

GENEVA (Reuters) - The new head of the World Health Organization (WHO) voiced hope on Wednesday that bipartisan support would prevail in the U.S. Congress to fund global health initiatives, despite deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister elected as the first African WHO director-general on Tuesday, also said the United Nations agency would be seeking new donors.

U.S. President Donald Trump proposed cuts on Tuesday of about 32 percent from U.S. diplomacy and aid budgets, or nearly $19 billion. His fellow Republicans in Congress assailed his plan, making it unlikely the cutbacks will take effect.

Tedros, asked about the proposed cuts to U.S. and multilateral aid agencies, told a news conference that donors should not suddenly pull out of existing programmes.

"I am a strong believer that there should be an exit strategy, that means a gradual exit that avoids any shocks," he said. "When there are finance cuts like this, the most affected are the poor."

But he added: "I don't take it as a closed issue, and I will continue to engage and use that bipartisan position that I have already experienced while working as minister of health in my own country, but also when I was chairing the Global Fund (to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria)."

Newly elected Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 24, 2017.Denis Balibouse

The United States currently provides nearly $835 million to WHO's budget of $5.8 billion for 2016-2017, WHO figures show, combining both U.S. assessed and voluntary contributions.

Tedros said he preferred to see global agencies including WHO, the World Bank, GAVI vaccine alliance and Global Fund as part of one "big envelope".

"We need to expand the donor base ... If we have as many countries as possible who can contribute, it could be any amount, I think that will help," he said.

"By expanding the donor base, we help the health financing to have a kind of shock absorber."

U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Tom Price, in a speech to the WHO's annual ministerial assembly on Monday, did not refer to U.S. contributions while voicing support for WHO.

"But it also means taking a clear-eyed view of what needs to change for it to fulfil that most important mission - ensuring a rapid and focused response to potential global health crises," Price said.

    "Reform with this focus must be this organisation's number one priority," he said. "The United States wants and we all need a strong WHO."

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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