HIV/AIDS Top Priority for New World Health Chief

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 21, 2003 (ENS) - With a pledge to put the fight against HIV/AIDS at the top of his agenda, Dr. Lee Jong-wook of South Korea took office today as director-general of the World Health Organization. A 20 year veteran of the UN affiliated agency, Lee will serve in the top post for the next five years. He replaces Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Prime Minister of Norway, who served as director-general for the past five years.

"Our work together in the coming years will be guided by three principles. We must do the right things. We must do them in the right places. And we must do them the right way," he said in his inaugural address, which was broadcast to World Health Organization (WHO) staff around the world.

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Dr. Lee Jong-wook took office today as director-general of the World Health Organization. (Photo courtesy WHO)
As the world’s health advocate, Dr. Lee said WHO will be a strong voice in international debates on all issues that affect health. "We will continue our analysis and advocacy on the health effects of global trade policies, intellectual property rights, environmental change, migration, conflict, and other institutions and processes related to development."

Global forces influence countries’ ability to build and maintain health systems that meet people’s needs, he said. "Putting countries at the center of our work requires critical reflection on the factors influencing sustainable development and on the health consequences of development policies."

"Global health work must be guided by an ethical vision." Dr. Lee said. "WHO’s Constitution articulates our vision. At its heart is a commitment to respect for all human beings. That commitment sustains every part of our work."

HIV/AIDS will be given a renewed emphasis as one of WHO's priority programs, with the target of providing three million people in developing countries with antiretroviral drugs by the end of 2005.

Dr. Lee said he has given the newly strengthened HIV/AIDS department the task of producing a global plan to meet this "Three by Five" goal by World AIDS Day on December 1.

This target will guide much of WHO's work on AIDS, although along with the renewed emphasis on treatment, work on prevention, counselling and care will continue.

The WHO departments working on HIV/AIDS will be brought into a new cluster together with tuberculosis and malaria. "This grouping will facilitate our work internally," Lee said. "It will also streamline our cooperative relationship with countries and partners such as the Global Fund."

woman and child

An estimated 95 percent of the 42 million people infected with HIV/AIDS globally live in developing countries, like this woman and child in Zambia (Photo courtesy World Food Programme)
At an international conference Wednesday to highlight the progress of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, European Commission President Romano Prodi committed personally to fight for a one billion dollar contribution from Europe for 2004.

The United States remains the leading contributor to the fund with a multi-year pledge of $1.65 billion.

French President Jacques Chirac said, "The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is an outstanding instrument. It was set up in record time. It is already operating on the ground, saving lives. Naturally we will assess its efficiency very carefully. But I am convinced that this multilateral response expresses, better than any other, the ideal of solidarity and collective action that must impel us."

Earlier in the day, other leaders had also pronounced their support for the Global Fund.

"I believe in the Global Fund," said Nelson Mandela in his address to the conference. "I believe that it has shown great progress, and that we must, in turn, commit more support to its success and future."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it would accelerate payment of a $50 million pledge, according to a statement issued by the Geneva based fund.

The Global Fund was created in early 2002 as a new mechanism for raising and distributing money to be used to combat disease. The fund provides financing for specific disease fighting programs and initiatives proposed by locally based groups. Initial funding is provided for two years, with continued support dependent on program performance.

In its first two rounds of grant applications, the Global Fund approved grants worth US$ 1.5 billion over two years to more than 150 programs in 92 countries. This money will provide more than 500,000 people living with HIV/AIDS with antiretroviral treatment, and medical and educational support for half a million children orphaned due to AIDS.

It will also enable the detection and treatment of two million additional cases of tuberculosis, and deliver 20 million combination drug treatments for drug resistant malaria.

"We will use the provision of AIDS treatment to strengthen HIV prevention and to build up health systems," Dr. Lee pledged today. "Resistance to antiretroviral medicines must be closely monitored," he said. "I will work with WHO’s partners to establish a global network to monitor patterns of resistance to AIDS medicines.

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A laboratory at the University of Hawaii Department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology in Honolulu (Photo courtesy UH)
In 2001, the Stop TB Partnership launched the Global Drug Facility and Green Light Committee to make quality TB medicines available at reduced prices, Dr. Lee explained. Later this year, WHO will launch similar initiatives for malaria and HIV/AIDS, he said.

To address the shortage of skilled health professionals around the world, Dr. Lee said his leadership team is committed to developing the skills of people at all levels and in all parts of the organization.

Dr. Lee announced plans for a new Health Leadership Service programme to be established at WHO. Talented young public health professionals from developing countries will be selected for a two year program of training and immersion in the work of WHO at all levels.

"Health information is the glue that holds a health system together," said Dr. Lee. In most countries stronger, more integrated information systems are required. One example is vital registration systems - the ability to count births and deaths. These systems are still missing for most of the countries' population, especially in countries with high disease burdens.

"To make people count, we first need to be able to count people," he said. To address this problem, he will develop WHO’s health information partnership with member states and international organizations including the Gates Foundation, the World Bank and UNICEF. "We will put in place a health metrics network to support countries in fullfilling critical health information gaps."

The World Health Organization conducts its work through 147 country offices, six regional offices, and at its headquarters in Geneva.

The report of outgoing WHO Director-General Dr. Brundtland can be found at: http://www.who.int/dg/brundtland/en/