Pandemic flu fighter Chan nominated to lead WHO

Nov 8, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – The executive board of the World Health Organization (WHO) today nominated Dr. Margaret Chan, the agency's top pandemic influenza official and a veteran of the world's first confrontation with the H5N1 flu virus in 1997, to be the agency's next director-general.

Chan's nomination will be submitted to the World Health Assembly for a vote tomorrow, the WHO said. News services said the assembly has always confirmed the executive board's nominations in the past.

Chan has been serving as the WHO director's representative for pandemic influenza and assistant director-general for communicable diseases, the agency said. As director of health in Hong Kong, she confronted the first human outbreak of H5N1 avian flu in 1997, when 18 people fell ill and 6 died. The crisis ended after authorities ordered the slaughter of all 1.5 million domestic poultry in Hong Kong.

If elected, Chan, 59, will be the first Chinese to head a major United Nations agency, according to news services. She will succeed Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, who died May 22. Dr. Anders Nordstrom has been serving as acting director-general.

Chan had been the front-runner to replace Lee among five finalists for the job, according to a Reuters report. China, a member of the UN Security Council, had nominated her for the post, in what was seen as a sign of the country's interest in playing a larger international role, the report said.

She served as director of the Hong Kong health department for 9 years before joining the WHO in 2003. Her tenure in Hong Kong included the battle with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, when Hong Kong had 1,755 cases with 299 deaths, a major share of the global toll of 8,096 cases and 774 deaths, according to WHO figures.

"She also introduced primary health care 'from the diaper to the grave' with a focus on health promotion and disease prevention, self-care and healthy lifestyles," the WHO statement said.

Chan's supporters had contended that her election could improve relations between the WHO and China, Reuters reported. WHO officials have repeatedly criticized China for being slow to share H5N1 data and samples with the rest of the world.

Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang promised closer cooperation between Beijing and the WHO following Chan's nomination, Reuters reported. "China's government will strengthen cooperation with all the member states of the WHO to contribute to a better public health," he told the WHO board, speaking through an interpreter.

After Chan's nomination, China's UN ambassador, Sha Zukang, smiled broadly and said he was "one hundred percent" pleased, according to an Associated Press (AP) report today.

When she started to campaign for the job last summer, Chan promised she would be independent, the AP reported.

"If elected, I'm not serving Hong Kong's interests," she was quoted as saying. "I'm not serving China's interests. I'm serving the world's interests. That's a very important message to get clear."

Chan's nomination needs approval by a two-thirds majority of the World Health Assembly, which consists of all 193 WHO member countries, according to the AP.

The WHO executive board consists of 34 members who have technical qualifications in health. The United States is one of the 34 countries currently represented on the board.

The board chose Chan over Mexican Health Minister Julio Frenk; Shigero Omi of Japan, Western Pacific regional director for the WHO; Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado; and Kazem Behbehani of Kuwait, the WHO's assistant director for external relations and governing bodies. Diplomats told Reuters that the final vote pitted Chan against Frenk.

Chan earned her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and a public health degree at the National University of Singapore, the WHO said. She joined Hong Kong's health department in 1978, the AP reported.

Mike Leavitt, US health and human services secretary, issued a statement calling Chan "a strong leader."

"Dr. Chan led the successful response to the outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the highly pathogenic avian influenza," he said. "I am confident that she will ensure WHO's role as the premier global health agency, guided by scientific excellence and well-prepared to meet the many challenges it faces."

See also:

Nov 8 WHO news release about Chan nomination

Nov 3 WHO statement about the director-general election

Mike Leavitt's statement

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