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Chinese Bird-Flu Expert Is Picked to Lead WHO
posted by admin on 09/11/06

The World Health Organization nominated Chinese infectious-disease expert Margaret Chan to lead the United Nations health agency.


By BETSY MCKAY
November 8, 2006 2:05 p.m.

GENEVA -- The World Health Organization nominated Chinese infectious-disease expert Margaret Chan to lead the United Nations health agency, underscoring the increasing importance countries throughout the world are putting on halting the spread of pandemic flu and other deadly viruses.

Wednesday's selection of the 59-year-old Dr. Chan by WHO's executive board also confirms China's growing clout in global politics and health, as well as a desire to prod the country to be more forthcoming with health information. China has been criticized for failing to disclose cases of avian flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome to WHO until those diseases had spread to Hong Kong and beyond Chinese borders.

While WHO officials say their recent pressure on China to track and report infectious-disease cases more openly has brought positive results, Dr. Chan's nomination suggests that many countries want the agency to be even more aggressive.

"This is a moment of personal honor and deep personal responsibility," she said in a brief speech after her nomination. While campaigning for the top job, Dr. Chan vowed to show no preference for Chinese interests.

Dr. Chan faces a confirmation vote Thursday by the World Health Assembly, WHO's full governing body, consisting of representatives of 192 member states. The vote is considered a formality, since no director-general proposed by the executive board has ever been rejected for the job. Dr. Chan is set to assume her duties as WHO chief Jan. 4 and would serve a 5½-year term ending June 30, 2012.

Dr. Chan, WHO's top communicable-diseases official, is the first official to be nominated for the top WHO post by China. The country's support of her candidacy was unusual because the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council traditionally haven't backed candidates for the job, though no rule prevents them from doing so.

Dr. Chan's selection culminated a three-day meeting behind closed doors here that included interviews Tuesday with five finalists. Vote totals announced Wednesday showed that she easily beat out Julio Frenk, Mexico's health minister, in the final tally, with 24 of the 34 votes from the WHO executive board.

Following initial rounds of voting Monday, Dr. Chan was considered the heavy favorite for the nomination, and she delivered a stirring speech during her meeting with the executive board Tuesday. It isn't clear exactly what clinched the victory, but her experience on the front lines of the battle against SARS and avian flu is consistent with the public-health priorities of many countries, including the U.S., where officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of pandemic-flu preparedness.

In a statement, Mike Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, said he is "confident" Dr. Chan "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."

In her speech, Dr. Chan pledged to continue the work of previous director-general Lee Jong Wook of South Korea, who died in May of a stroke. Dr. Chan, a former director of Hong Kong's health department who has been at WHO since 2003, pledged to move forward on providing universal access to HIV treatment, prevention and care. During her campaign, Dr. Chan pledged support for a wide variety of initiatives beyond pandemic flu, ranging from polio eradication to implementing WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Sha Zukang, China's ambassador to Switzerland, called Dr. Chan's win a landmark for China but added: "We know there are great responsibilities and high expectations." In an interview while campaigning for the post, Dr. Chan said she would defend the interests of public health. "I will not favor China," she said.

A top official at China's Ministry of Health emphasized that China has come a long way since SARS. "For the officials working in the Ministry of Health, most of the people are open-minded, and they are willing to cooperate with the international organizations, including WHO," the official said yesterday.

When asked whether the government would try to influence Dr. Chan, the Chinese health official replied: "If the WHO, when they are dealing with the relations with China, if they don't take into consideration the Chinese people, there will be a problem."

WHO officials say China has been more open with health information in recent months. Still, a WHO official in Beijing accused the government last week of failing to share virus samples.

Dr. Chan's success at beating back avian flu and SARS won her a sort of celebrity status in Hong Kong. A former schoolteacher who went on to receive a medical degree at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, Dr. Chan made the controversial decision in 1997 to stamp out the world's first outbreak of the H5N1 avian flu virus by culling 1.5 million poultry feared to be spreading the disease to humans.

The move has since become the standard approach to controlling the spread of the H5N1 virus, despite the brutal economic toll it can have on poultry farmers. One of the first public-health officials to understand the seriousness of the appearance of the new flu strain, Dr. Chan also invited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate and track the disease early on during the outbreak.

Dr. Chan displayed her crisis-management skills again in 2003, overseeing the health department's efforts to control the SARS outbreak. Despite being criticized later for failing to push Chinese officials to disclose SARS cases in the province of Guangdong sooner, a committee that investigated Hong Kong's efforts praised her overall efforts.

--Nicholas Zamiska in Hong Kong contributed to this article.

Write to Betsy McKay at betsy.mckay@wsj.com


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