New UN health chief pledges to focus on Africans and women worldwide
Pledging to devote herself to improving the health of the people of Africa and women across the globe, Margaret Chan, a Chinese doctor who has played a key role in United Nations efforts to prevent bird flu from mutating into a deadly human pandemic, has been elected as the new head of the UN health agency.
“What matters most to me is people, and two specific groups of people in particular,” she told the World Health Assembly, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) decision making body, in her acceptance speech in Geneva yesterday. “I want us to be judged by the impact we have on the health of the people of Africa, and the health of women.
“Improvements in the health of the people of Africa and the health of women are key indicators of the performance of WHO,” she added.
Underlining the importance of strong systems to deliver health, she alluded to a problem recently cited by WHO of trained health workers migrating from poorer countries to richer nations where they are paid more. “All the donated drugs in the world won’t do any good without an infrastructure for their delivery,” she said. “You cannot deliver health care if the staff you trained at home are working abroad.”
Dr. Chan, previously top WHO official for communicable diseases and point person for pandemic influenza, was nominated by WHO’s Executive Board earlier this week from a short list of five to succeed Director-General Lee Jong-wook, who died suddenly in May.
In 2003, she became Director of WHO’s Department of Protection of the Human Environment. In June 2005, she was appointed Director, Communicable Diseases Surveillance and Response, and Representative of the Director-General for Pandemic Influenza as well as Assistant Director-General for the Communicable Diseases cluster.
Dr. Chan obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. She joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978, where her career in public health began. In 1994, she was appointed Director of Health of Hong Kong. In her nine-year tenure she launched new preventive and promotive health care services.
She also introduced new initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance and response, enhance training for public health professionals, and establish better local and international collaboration.
She has effectively managed outbreaks of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a flu-like disease which over a nine-month period from November 2002 to July 2003 infected more than 8,000 people, killing 774 of them, mostly in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Yesterday, she underlined the diverse approaches needed to strengthen health care in different parts of the world. “Many countries in Africa face the challenge of rebuilding social support systems. Others in central Asia and Eastern Europe are undergoing transition from planned to market economies,” she said.
“They want WHO support. They want to make sure that equitable and accessible systems built on primary health care are not sacrificed in the process,” she added, pledging to integrate WHO’s research activities to more strategically address a common research agenda and to accelerate human resource reform within WHO based on competence.
“As we know, not all of the problems faced by WHO in its efforts to improve world health are subject to scientific scrutiny, or yield their secrets under a microscope,” she concluded. “You know the ones I mean: lack of resources and too little political commitment. These are often the true killers.”