Nov 9, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – Dr. Margaret Chan, a former Hong Kong health official who has battled H5N1 avian influenza and SARS, easily won election today as the next director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Chan received 150 votes in a closed meeting of the 193-nation World Health Assembly, well above the two thirds majority she needed, according to an Associated Press (AP) report. The WHO's executive board nominated her yesterday to succeed Dr. Lee Jong-wook, who died on May 22. Dr. Anders Nordstrom has been serving as acting director-general.
Chan, with the WHO since 2003, has been serving as the director-general's representative for pandemic influenza and as assistant director general for communicable diseases. Her term as director-general will run until June 2012, according to the Associated Press (AP).
In accepting her election, Chan said her top goals will be to improve the health of Africans and of women around the world. She also told reporters she would set her Chinese nationality aside as she works to combat major threats such as avian flu.
"I want us to be judged by the impact we have on the health of the people of Africa, and the health of women," a WHO news release quoted Chan as saying in her acceptance speech. "Improvements in the health of the people of Africa and the health of women are the key indicators of the performance of WHO."
Concluding her speech, she said, "The work we do together saves lives and relieves suffering. I will work with you tirelessly to make this world a healthier place."
Chan is the first Chinese to become the head of a major United Nations agency. China has been accused of being slow to share H5N1 avian flu data and virus samples, especially with regard to poultry outbreaks.
Chan promised to use her influence with Beijing in the battle with avian flu, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report.
"Now I'm elected as the WHO's director-general I no longer carry my nationality on my sleeve. I leave it behind," she was quoted as telling reporters.
"I will speak up if some member states need to strengthen their effort, and in this case if you are referring to China I will definitely speak out and urge China . . . to share information," she said, according to AFP.
As Hong Kong's director of health in 1997, Chan led the city's effort to stop the first major H5N1 outbreaks in poultry and the first human cases. Her decision to quickly slaughter all 1.5 million poultry in the district has been credited with stopping the outbreak and possibly preventing a major international health crisis.
Chan was also in charge when SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) spread through Hong Kong in 2003.
Infectious disease expert Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, a leading proponent of pandemic influenza preparedness, praised the election of Chan. He said she provided "outstanding" leadership during the SARS crisis and has "timely and needed" expertise on avian flu.
"Margaret Chan understands infectious diseases at the household and neighborhood level, based on her longtime, hands-on public health work in Hong Kong," said Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, publisher of the CIDRAP Web site. "This type of experience is invaluable in her role now as the leading international public health policy leader. She's well grounded in the most practical aspects of what the WHO must be doing on a global basis."
Nov 9 WHO news release