WHO head dies

Lee Jong-Wook was director-general since 2003; WHO appoints Anders Nordström as acting director-general

By | May 22, 2006

Lee Jong-Wook, director-general of the World Health Organization since 2003, died unexpectedly Monday morning (May 22) after surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain. He was 61 years old. This morning, the WHO announced it was appointing Anders Nordström, now assistant director-general for general management, as acting director-general. Lee, a South Korean national, served the WHO for 23 years, previously as senior policy advisor, head of the WHO Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunizations, and director of Stop TB, among many other roles. With quiet clarity and conviction, Lee set out ambitious goals for the WHO and for world leaders, such as the "3 by 5" plan that aimed to provide three million people with HIV/AIDS in poor countries with access to treatment by the end of 2005. Though this target has not yet been met, his commitment to the project and its successes are widely credited with making universal access to medicine a global priority. "I began in polio when we had nothing. Now we are close to eradication. You have to begin by setting goals," he told The Scientist in 2003. Lee also launched the Global Drug Facility to provide access to tuberculosis medication and led international efforts to mitigate the threat of avian influenza. Lee was "always very alert to both the political aspects and the technical aspects [of a problem], which is really important in the international arena?because of that, he successfully drove activities forward very smoothly," David Heymann, special representative of the director-general for Polio Eradication at the WHO, who worked closely with Lee over the years, told The Scientist. Heymann remembers his last meeting with "JW" last Thursday, when the polio team came to Lee to discuss issues facing the goal of eradication. Heymann remembered being assured that their concerns "should be no obstacle to finishing the job;" Lee said he would "make sure that they are addressed." "He was a very very intelligent man who had deep understanding of issues," said Christine McNab, communications officer at the director-general's office. He was often known to "crack a small joke, almost inaudibly, which would make us fill with laughter because it was so observant and astute," she said. Lee was "perceptive" and made it a priority to listen to the stories of people in different countries and at all levels of healthcare to "see what they needed [and] would do his best to respond to that," McNab told The Scientist. "The world has lost a great man today. Lee Jong-wook was a man of conviction and passion. He was a strong voice for the right of every man, woman and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people," said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to a WHO statement. "He tackled the most difficult problems head on, while upholding the highest principles. He will be very gravely missed, but history will mark Lee Jong-wook's many contributions to public health." Last month, Time magazine named Jong-Wook one of the year's 100 most influential people. Jong-wook earned his medical degree from Seoul National University and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of Hawaii. He leaves behind a wife and son, as well as two brothers and one sister. Ishani Ganguli iganguli@the-scientist.com Links within this article World Health Organization http://www.who.int/en/ "Dr Anders Nordström becomes Acting Director-General of the World Health Organization," WHO, May 22, 2006. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/statements/2006/s08/en/ "A tribute to Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, director-general of the World Health Organization," WHO, May 22, 2006. http://www.who.int/dg/lee/tribute/en/ R. Walgate, "South Korean to head WHO" The Scientist, May 22, 2003 http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/21339/ David Heymann http://www.polio.pitt.edu/speakers/heymann.htm
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