Chinese Official Named World Health Organization Director-General

By Cheryl Pellerin
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - The World Health Assembly in Geneva has approved the appointment of Dr. Margaret Chan of the People’s Republic of China as director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Chan was nominated November 8 by the WHO Executive Board to become WHO's new chief technical and administrative officer, and the World Health Assembly met for a one-day special session November 9 to make the decision.

The appointment comes after the sudden death May 22 of Dr. Lee Jong-wook, WHO's previous director-general.

After her appointment, Chan told the World Health Assembly she wanted to be judged by the impact WHO's work has on the people of Africa and on women across the globe.

“What matters most to me is people, and two specific groups of people in particular,” Chan said in her acceptance speech. “Improvements in the health of the people of Africa and the health of women are key indicators of the performance of WHO."

She added: "All regions, all countries, all people are equally important. This is a health organization for the whole world. Our work must touch on the lives of everyone, everywhere, but we must focus our attention on the people in greatest need."


“The United States government looks forward to working with Dr. Chan,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt in a November 8 statement, “and to continuing our close collaboration with the WHO Secretariat on a range of pressing public-health and scientific issues.”

Chan, 59, is well-known because of her record of leadership in fighting disease, first in Hong Kong as director of health and since 2003 at WHO, ultimately becoming representative of the director-general for pandemic influenza and assistant director-general for communicable diseases.

Chan took a leave of absence from WHO in July because she was being considered for the position of WHO director-general. In the interim, Dr. David Heymann has been acting assistant director-general for communicable diseases.

WHO is an important body dedicated to the health needs of every person in the world, Leavitt said in his statement. “I am confident [Chan] will ensure WHO’s role as the premier global health agency, guided by scientific excellence, and is well-prepared to meet the many challenges it faces,” he said.

Chan obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and a public health degree from the National University of Singapore.  She began her career in public health when she joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978.


During a nine-year tenure as director of health for Hong Kong, Chan confronted the first human outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997 and defeated severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) there in 2003.

As health director in Hong Kong, Chan introduced initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance and response, enhance training for public health professionals and establish better local and international collaboration.

At WHO, she introduced primary health care “from the diaper to the grave,” according to a WHO statement, with a focus on health promotion and disease prevention, self-care and healthy lifestyles.

Procedures for the current nomination and election process were decided after Lee’s sudden death. At its meeting on May 23, the WHO Executive Board agreed on an accelerated process for electing a new director-general.

The 34-member Executive Board advises and implements decisions and policies of the World Health Assembly, the supreme decision-making body for WHO.

Countries represented on the Executive Board are Afghanistan, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bhutan, Bolivia, Brazil, China, Denmark, Djibouti, El Salvador, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lesotho, Liberia, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Mali, Mexico, Namibia, Portugal, Romania, Rwanda, Singapore, Slovenia, Sri Lanka, Tonga, Thailand, Turkey and the United States.