Chinese Physician Elected Head of WHO

Margaret Chan of China succeeds physician Lee Jong-wook, who died last May from a brain hemorrhage, at the World Health Organization in Geneva.
Margaret Chan of China succeeds physician Lee Jong-wook, who died last May from a brain hemorrhage, at the World Health Organization in Geneva. (By Martial Trezzini -- Keystone Via Associated Press)
By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

The World Health Organization yesterday elected as its new leader a 59-year-old Chinese physician, Margaret Chan, who in the past 10 years played a key role in suppressing two disease outbreaks that had the potential to become global epidemics.

As Hong Kong's director of health, Chan led the responses to the original outbreak of H5N1 bird flu in 1997 and to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. Both required dramatic decisions, constant appearances before reporters and delicate closed-door diplomacy.

Chan's selection from a list of 11 candidates reflects the importance of WHO's leadership in controlling infectious diseases with planet-crippling potential. It also recognizes the unusual dual role played by China -- as incubator of emerging pathogens and as a country with the capacity to make or break the global response.

WHO, with headquarters in Geneva, has myriad functions, from providing advice on health policy and clinical medicine to poor countries, to coordinating campaigns against specific threats such as smoking, AIDS and influenza. It has a budget of $1.7 billion. Of its 8,500 staff members, about 6,000 are in nearly every nation on Earth.

Chan's appointment, confirmed by a vote of WHO's 193 member nations, is a diplomatic coup for China. She is the first Chinese national to head a major U.N. agency.

"Chan's appointment coincides with China's political and economic ascendancy," said Derek Yach, a former WHO executive who heads global health programs for the Rockefeller Foundation. "It will boost expectations of low- and middle-income countries that their needs and priorities will get support."

Nils Daulaire, an American physician who heads the Global Health Council, a Washington-based advocacy organization, echoed that view, saying: "The message is very clear that China is here on the world stage, and it was the appropriate time to recognize that with a senior position at a U.N. agency."

Chan succeeds physician Lee Jong Wook, who died in May from a brain hemorrhage. In the interim, the organization has been led by Anders Nordstrom, a physician who came to WHO in 2003 after serving in posts in his native Sweden and in international organizations, including the Red Cross.

The office of director-general is designed to be filled by a person with technical credentials, but the campaign to fill it is subject to international dealmaking at the highest level.

Chan's election was helped by strong, if quiet, encouragement by the United States and surprising, final-round support from Japan. She won 24 to 10 on the fifth ballot in the 34-member WHO executive board, which then submitted her name to the full membership for ratification. The runner-up was Julio Frenk, Mexico's health minister and the candidate many observers viewed as objectively most qualified.

The third-place candidate, Shigeru Omi, a Japanese WHO official, was eliminated in the next-to-last round of voting. Japan threw its support to Chan -- and the eight other countries that had supported Omi followed it.

"There must have been quite a deal struck," said one former WHO executive in Geneva for the vote.

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