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South Korean to head WHO

New Director-General Jong-Wook Lee sets ambitious targets for WHO

By | May 22, 2003

GENEVA—The director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the next 5 years, elected yesterday (May 21) by the World Health Assembly, is to be the man recommended by the executive board earlier this year—Jong-Wook Lee of South Korea.

In a striking, effective, and passionate acceptance speech before health ministers and other delegates at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Lee had the audience on its feet to applaud the widow and son of the late Carlo Urbani, who as WHO representative to Vietnam was the first to warn the world of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) but then died of the disease himself. Lee said, "He has given us WHO at its best—not pushing paper but pushing back the results of poverty and disease."

Lee committed himself to strengthening the organization's activities at country levels, rather than at the Geneva headquarters (which has been greatly empowered by his predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland), and to expanding WHO's Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, which has dealt with SARS, at every level. In a press conference Lee committed $200 million to the network.

Lee amazed many in his audience by appearing to signal the end of a long, successful, but somewhat technocratic era at WHO. He revisited the 25-year-old WHO Alma-Ata Declaration, which set the goal of "health for all by the year 2000," on the basis of primary health care. "WHO must work to translate this ideal into measurable results, through a new relationship with member states," said Lee. In health politics, this was a significant move to the left.

Many health systems are "struggling against critical gaps in infrastructure, technology, and human resources," Lee said, "and countries, donors, and international agencies have yet to work out a coherent response." Extreme disparities in health, with children in some countries facing a one in four chance of dying by the age of 4 are "neither acceptable nor even viable."

After rehearsing the now well known tolls of infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, as well as emerging diseases like SARS, Lee stressed the need for efforts on noncommunicable diseases, "accounting for 45% of the world's disease burden in 2001 and projected to rise;" on women's health, in which there has been "little progress in reducing maternal mortality over the last decade;" and on the "huge challenges of mental health."

The WHO's first objective will be an "aggressive pursuit of measurable health objectives, including the millennium development goals," adopted at the UN development summit in September 2000. HIV/AIDS is a central target, Lee said, making a personal commitment: "Working with UNAIDS, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, member states, civil society, and other stakeholders, I will ensure that WHO provides leadership toward a bold target: three million people in developing countries on antiretrovirals by 2005."

African health leaders questioned by The Scientist after Lee's address expressed cautious optimism at his commitments. AIDS activists present were delighted, but asked where the money would come from. "The Global Fund is broke," said one.

Lee himself later admitted to The Scientist that he had no definite plans on where the funding would come from. But, he said, "I began in polio when we had nothing. Now we are close to eradication. You have to begin by setting goals."

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