Chinese Bird Flu Expert to Head World Health Organization

GENEVA, Switzerland, November 9, 2006 (ENS) - Bird flu expert Dr. Margaret Chan of China was appointed today as the next director-general of the World Health Organization, WHO. In her acceptance speech, she told the World Health Assembly she wants to be judged by improvements in the health of the people of Africa and the health of women.

"What matters most to me is people," Dr. Chan said. "And two specific groups of people in particular. I want us to be judged by the impact we have on the health of the people of Africa, and the health of women."

"Lack of resources and too little political commitment. These are often the true killers," she said.


WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan was previously WHO assistant director-general for communicable diseases and representative of the director-general for pandemic avian influenza. (Photo courtesy WHO)
Dr. Chan told the Assembly that as director-general she would focus on six key issues - health development, security, capacity, information and knowledge, partnership, and performance.

She emphasized the importance of global health security in her vision of the Organization's role.

"Health security brings benefits at both the global and community levels. New diseases are global threats to health that also bring shocks to economies and societies. Defense against these threats enhances our collective security."

"All regions, all countries, all people are equally important. This is a health organization for the whole world. Our work must touch on the lives of everyone, everywhere," she said. "But we must focus our attention on the people in greatest need."

Dr. Chan was nominated as director-general on Wednesday by the WHO Executive Board and her appointment was confirmed on Thursday by the World Health Assembly. The Director-General is WHO's chief technical and administrative officer.

Dr. Chan obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and also has a degree in public health from the National University of Singapore.

She joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978, and was appointed as director of health in 1994. As director, she launched new services focusing on prevention of disease and promotion of health.

She also introduced new initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance and response, enhance training for public health professionals, and to establish better local and international collaboration. She has effectively managed outbreaks of avian influenza and the world's first outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, SARS.

The procedures for the current nomination and election process were decided following the sudden death of WHO Director-General Dr. LEE Jong-wook on May 22.

Dr. Chan paid tribute to her predecessor, saying, "We are all here because of the untimely death of Dr. LEE Jong-wook. We are also all here because of many millions of untimely deaths. I know Dr. Lee would have wanted me to make this point. He will always be remembered for his 3by5 initiative. That was all about preventing untimely deaths on the grandest scale possible."

She especially praised the people who deliver health care. "The true heroes these days are the health workers with their healing, caring ethic. They are determined to save lives and relieve suffering, and they work with impressive dedication, often under difficult conditions. The world needs many, many more of them."

"All the donated drugs in the world won’t do any good without an infrastructure for their delivery," she said. "You cannot deliver health care if the staff you trained at home are working abroad."

Dr. Chan underlined the diverse approaches needed to strengthen health and health care in different parts of the world.

"Many countries in Africa face the challenge of rebuilding social support systems. Others in central Asia and Eastern Europe are undergoing transition from planned to market economies. They want WHO support. They want to make sure that equitable and accessible systems built on primary health care are not sacrificed in the process."

She also plans to set up a global health observatory to collect, collate and disseminate data on priority health problems.

"Today, collaboration to achieve public health goals is no longer simply an asset. It is a critical necessity," she said.

Matthew Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, is hopeful that Dr. Chan will work for what he calls "the global tobacco epidemic."

Because she participated in the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, FCTC, the international tobacco control treaty, as the vice-chairperson of the FCTC Working Group, Myers expects her to work for development of strong protocols on issues such as cigarette smuggling and cross-border advertising.

"Tobacco use killed 100 million people in the 20th century, and if current trends continue, it will claim one billion lives in the 21st century," Myers warns.