WHO nominates director general
Chinese expert in communicable diseases to lead the organization
The World Health Organization's executive board
has nominated Margaret Chan
, an expert on avian influenza from China, to be its next director general.
If, as expected, her nomination is ratified tomorrow at a special one-day session of the World Health Assembly, Chan will become the seventh director-general to lead the United Nations' public health arm since it was established in 1948.
"She's going to be a pretty safe pair of hands," said Derek Yach
, director of the Rockefeller Foundation's program on global health and a former executive director at WHO. "She's a seasoned WHO staff member and that's good."
follows the sudden death of the previous director-general, Lee Jong-wook
, in May. The global health body will be looking for some stability from Chan's tenure, particularly considering Lee had only been in the job for three years, said Yach.
"I think her appointment is going to bring some continuity to changes that are already happening," he told The Scientist
. "And in terms of highlighting the problems of developing countries, and large developing countries in particular, it's excellent news."
Before today, Chan was best known for her central role in combating diseases such as SARS and bird flu in Hong Kong. "Given her background in disease prevention, that's clearly going to be a major priority as she takes up the post," said Christopher Murray
, director of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health and another former executive director at the World Health Organization.
"I think it's a great victory for China and recognizes that China has a great part to play in global health," said Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet
, who has long been outspoken on the role of the WHO.
Horton described Chan as having good public health credentials, but noted she had little experience dealing with the kinds of problems WHO has to cope with every day. "I think the executive board has made a brave decision, but one that brings with it risks," he said. "It will be absolutely vital that she builds a good team around her."
After whittling down an initial list of 13 candidates
, the executive board on Monday revealed a short-list that also included Shigeru Omi, the Japanese head of WHO operations in the Western Pacific and China; Mexico's Health Minister Julio Frenk; Kazem Behbehani, a senior WHO official from Kuwait; and Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado Mendez.
Chan and Frenk were widely considered to be the leading candidates, and in the final ballot, they were the last two standing. "I think that the two most qualified candidates made it through to the last round of voting," said Murray.
During the past week in Geneva, US officials campaigned hard in support of Chan, Murray noted. "Behind the scenes there's clearly been some meeting of the minds," he said. "That's intriguing."
"A China-US alliance can only be good for the world," commented Yach. "If they've worked together to get her elected, then presumably they'll work together to support her once she's in the job."
Chan will have debts to pay to both countries following her election, Horton said. "But it is vital -- it's her first critical test -- that she gives 100% commitment to low and middle-income countries and establishes a completely independent line from major donors," he said. "That means tackling difficult issues like reproductive health that the US would prefer marginalized."
Chan's nomination was applauded by Chinese officials. "I am very happy," Sha Zukang, China's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told Reuters. By pushing Chan, China became the first UN Security Council member to nominate an official to become a UN agency head. "I think it's a reflection of China's seriousness in dealing with the UN," Yach said.
Chan obtained her Medical Degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978. In 1994, she was appointed to the post of Director of Health of Hong Kong, a post she held for nine years.
She became WHO's Director of the Department of Protection of the Human Environment in 2003, and two years later was appointed as Director, Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Response as well as Representative of the Director-General for Pandemic Influenza.
Links within this article:
WHO Executive Board
S. Pincock, "Hunt for new WHO head heats up," The Scientist
, July 25, 2006.
S. Pincock, "WHO ponders future without Lee," The Scientist
, June 2, 2006.
S. Pincock, "Who's up for top WHO job?" The Scientist
, September 7, 2006.