Monday, November 13, 2006

Bird flu expert to lead WHO

Bird flu expert to lead WHO

GENEVA, Switzerland (AP) -- Dr. Margaret Chan, who spearheaded the World Health Organization's fight against bird flu, was chosen Wednesday to head the agency and lead the international assault on polio, AIDS and other global scourges, becoming the first Chinese to win such a high-profile United Nations post.

Chan, 59, was Hong Kong's health director when the city reported the world's first known human outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus in 1997. Six people died, but Chan was credited with heading off a major human health crisis by ordering the slaughter of Hong Kong's entire poultry population -- about 1.5 million birds -- in three days.

She also received international praise for organizing Hong Kong's response to a 2003 outbreak of SARS -- or severe acute respiratory syndrome -- which killed several hundred people.

Her nomination is a victory for China and indicated the communist nation's interest in playing a bigger role in global affairs.

"I will work tirelessly with my eyes on the goal we agreed on together, my ears open for the voices of all and my heart committed to the populations of your countries," Chan told the 34-member WHO executive board after her nomination.

Chan will officially be appointed the next director-general if she gains a two-thirds majority at a special session Thursday of the agency's governing World Health Assembly, comprising all 193 member countries. The assembly has never rejected an executive board nominee.

She joined the WHO in 2003, after the SARS outbreak, and took over as the agency's flu pandemic chief in 2005. As an assistant director-general, she has led efforts to fight communicable diseases and prepare for a possible pandemic should bird flu mutate into a strain easily transmitted among humans.

"This was not an election about countries," U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health John O. Agwunobi told The Associated Press. "This was an election about individuals ... Margaret will be a servant of the entire world."

Dr. Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, was more reserved.

"Although Margaret Chan has strong abilities in some areas, like epidemic diseases, she is very much untested in other areas," Horton told the AP. "She has never run a really big organization like WHO."

Horton said it would be imperative that Chan "build a strong team that fills the gaps in her own expertise."

The board set Chan's term to start January 4 and to last until through June 2012.

China -- which has recently been criticized for dragging its feet in reporting outbreaks of bird flu to WHO and supplying virus samples for analysis -- expressed satisfaction.

"We look forward to the approval and support of Dr. Chan by the member states," a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Chan was chosen over four other candidates on the shortlist in a tight race to fill the post vacated by the death in May of Dr. Lee Jong-wook. In the final round of voting, she easily defeated Mexico's health minister, Dr. Julio Frenk, 24-10.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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