Keeping a finger on the world's pulse

Established in July 2003, the SHOC Room's first major trial was the December 2004 tsunami in the Far East.

WHO headquarters 298.88 (photo credit: WHO/Pierre Virot)
WHO headquarters 298.88
(photo credit: WHO/Pierre Virot)
The World Health Organization's Geneva headquarters is an office complex joined by underground tunnels (for getting around in inclement weather) and landscaped walkways above, with a lovely view of the nearby Lake L man. There is nothing really exceptional inside, except for the Center for Strategic Health Operations (nicknamed the SHOC Room) that kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers and health ministers are taken to see during their visits. I was pleased to be invited not only to see the well-protected room but also to speak to its operations manager, James Zimmerly - a Californian who studied network communications design and engineering and has worked at WHO headquarters for five years. "The WHO discovered me in Saudi Arabia when I was working on a private telemedicine network. Some government representatives picked our brains, and I offered my ideas for the SHOC room, in which some $5 million of dollars donated by the US were invested," he recalled. "It was the initiative of then-US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson." Special video presentations are aired about specific countries when the leader or health minister from that country is brought to the center. The SHOC Room, with its plasma TV screens along the walls and a separate glass-walled room where staffers monitor news wires and hundreds of TV stations around the globe, has a backup generator in case of power outages and an independent computer system and global private satellite communications network. Up to 45 people can sit in the SHOC Room simultaneously, many in front of computer screens. "You don't have to run down the hall to speak to someone," noted Zimmerly. "All decisionmakers are here, working on encrypted data and preparing updated situation reports. We can organize up to 96 simultaneous videoconferences with translation of reports from WHO representatives, health ministry officials and hospital doctors and nurses in any of the WHO's member countries. All of them can be called, seen and heard at any time of the day or night to provide information and advice during a crisis." Established in July 2003, the SHOC Room's first major trial was the December 2004 tsunami in the Far East, said Zimmerly. "It has dealt with cholera and Rift Valley fever. It was in the room that the WHO Emergency Preparedness and Response Department coordinated its response in March 2005 to an outbreak of Marburg hemorrhagic fever in Angola, and then announced that the crisis was officially over. The center also coordinated the international medical response to Hurricane Katrina in the southern US and earthquakes in Pakistan. During our own second Lebanon war instigated by the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks on northern Israel, the SHOC room facilitated medical assistance to civilians, especially in Lebanon. "Israeli and Arab doctors communicate with each other on a professional basis for humanitarian reasons even when a war is going on. Politics don't play any role when lives have to be saved," said Zimmerly. But in ordinary times, the room usually has about 15 core individuals at a time. The day before my visit, the SHOC room was used to investigate reports of a new strain of avian flu isolated in two Egyptian families that was shown to be resistant to antiviral drugs. "We're all on emergency standby," said Zimmerly. "There are duty officers, plus a listing of phone and fax numbers of health services and others around the world." While telephones and e-mail were used before, the advent of the SHOC Room creates a single point of coordination for response to health-care crises, including infectious disease outbreaks, natural disasters and chemical emergencies. "It is the hub of alert and response operations, combining the latest in information and communications technologies to support field operations and improve collaboration with member states and technical partners in external networks," he said. "We regularly consult with the International Red Cross, UNICEF and other non-governmental organizations as well. "This was the first health-related emergency service in Europe," he concludes, "but it has spawned 10 more in other parts of the world. Getting immediate information through advanced computerized communications systems can help countries work together to prevent deaths from disasters and diseases around the world."