Chinese bird flu expert takes over as new head of UN health agency
Margaret Chan, a Chinese doctor who played a key role in United Nations efforts to prevent bird flu from mutating into a deadly human pandemic, took office today as head of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), vowing to improve the health of Africans and women worldwide – and pledging reform but not upheaval.
“WHO has a long history of commitment to those in greatest need, including the most vulnerable groups,” the new Director-General of the 193-member state organization said on assuming office in Geneva. “I want my leadership to be judged by the impact of our work on the health of two populations: women and the people of Africa.”
Dr. Chan was elected in November by the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision making body, to succeed Lee Jong-wook, who died suddenly last May.
She set out six priority areas on which she intends to focus WHO’s work: development for health, health security, building the capacity of health systems, developing better information and knowledge, enhancing partnerships, and improving the Organization’s performance.
She told staff these priorities would not mean a major restructuring of WHO and she would be looking for ways in which different parts of the organization can work better together. “I will stick with my promise. Reform, yes. Upheaval, no,” she said. “I believe these are optimistic times for health. Never before has our work enjoyed such a high profile on the political agenda,” she added.
One of the key challenges facing WHO is to “manage all this vigorous interest in health in ways that ensure lasting improvements and do not overburden recipient countries,” she said. “As the acknowledged leader in public health, we need to ensure that the growing number of health initiatives meets comprehensive health needs, in a coordinated way, in line with the priorities of countries and their populations.”
Dr. Chan was previously WHO’s top official for communicable diseases and point person for pandemic influenza. In 2003, she became Director of the Department of Protection of the Human Environment, and in 2005 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.
She obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978, and in 1994 was appointed Hong Kong Director of Health. She effectively managed outbreaks of bird flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a flu-like disease that over a nine-month period in 2002- 2003 infected more than 8,000 people, killing 774 of them, mostly in China and elsewhere in Asia.
In her 30-year career in public health, she has covered all areas, ranging from health policy and chronic disease prevention and control to food and drug regulation and anti-tobacco work. Her first job was taking care of children and pregnant women.
In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Dr. Chan’s appointment and her intention that her performance should be judged by the relative progress on two key indicators: the health of Africans and women.
“He agrees fully with Dr. Chan that as a health organization for the whole word, the work of WHO must touch the lives of everyone, everywhere – but that it must focus its attention on those in the greatest need,” the statement added.