Chan first Chinese to lead UN agency

By Teddy Ng in Hong Kong and Zhang Feng in Beijing (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-09 06:42

Margaret Chan, who was yesterday elected the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in Geneva that she would work "tirelessly" for global health.

"You can be sure that I will work tirelessly and keep my ears open to all voices," the bird-flu expert told the 34 members of the WHO Executive Board, which nominated her as the new WHO director-general.

The World Health Organisation's 34-nation governing board has nominated China's Margaret Chan as its new chief to guide the global struggle against a threatened flu pandemic, infectious disease and chronic illness. [AFP]
Chan's nomination has to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the decision-making World Health Assembly, which will meet today with the participation of all 193 WHO members.

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The assembly has never rejected the board's candidate.

Chan, who will become the first Chinese to head a major UN agency, had long been the front runner in the race against four other candidates to replace South Korea's Lee Jong-wook who died suddenly last May three years into his five-year term as director-general.

In the final round of voting, she easily defeated Mexico's health minister, Julio Frenk, by a vote of 24-10.

The other candidates in the final shortlist were Shigeru Omi, a Japanese national who heads WHO's operations in Asia; Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado Mendez; and Kazem Behbehani, a senior WHO official from Kuwait.

Chinese Ambassador Sha Zukang, a veteran Geneva-based diplomat, smiled broadly after the vote and said he was pleased. "Absolutely. One hundred per cent," he told The Associated Press.

Chan was Hong Kong's health director during the SARS outbreak in 2003. She joined the WHO later that year, and took over as the agency's influenza pandemic chief in 2005.

As an assistant director-general, she has led the WHO's efforts to fight communicable diseases; and to prepare for a possible pandemic should the bird flu virus mutate into a strain easily transmitted among humans.

Minister of Health Gao Qiang said in Geneva that Chan's election as the new WHO chief was a historic moment. He pledged that the nation would strengthen co-operation with the WHO to improve global public health.

Speaking in Brussels, Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang said he had congratulated Chan via telephone.

"It is our honour to have a Hong Kong person being appointed a head of a United Nation's body, which is also the first time among Chinese people."

In Hong Kong, former Director of Health Lee Shiu-hung said the election result indicated that the special administrative region's expertise had reached international standards and recognized by the global community.

He believed Chan could play a bigger role in strengthening co-operation between the WHO and China.

Chinese University's School of Public Health Director Sian Griffiths believed Chan's excellent communication skills would enable her to obtain timely information about diseases outbreak on the Chinese mainland.

The university's medical professor Joseph Sung said Chan was familiar with the environment of South China, which was essential for controlling diseases outbreak.

Hong Kong Baptist University government and international relations expert Kenneth Chan said the victory was a milestone for China's participation in global affairs.

"Chan's nomination shows that the nation is peacefully and rationally engaging in global affairs, and that it is not defensive against the world. It will help alleviate concern that the rise of China is threatening others," he said.

In Beijing, WHO Representative in China Henk Bekedam congratulated Chan. "I am very happy to hear the news. She is a very energetic, easy-going person who has a lot of experience in public health management," he said, adding Chan would do an excellent job.

It is also exciting news for China, he said. "Although she is from Hong Kong, she knows the Chinese mainland well. She knows well what she needs to do here and in other developing countries."

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