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Margaret Chan Chosen to Head WHO

8 November 2006 (All day)
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WHO

Stepping up.
Infectious-disease expert Margaret Chan will take the reins of WHO in January.

Infectious-disease expert Margaret Chan, who hails from Hong Kong, has been nominated as the next director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. Chan, who has spent the last 18 months as assistant director-general for communicable diseases at WHO, is best known for her role in containing two fast-spreading viral outbreaks of bird flu and SARS in Hong Kong, where she was director of public health from 1994 to 2003. Her nomination, by the 34-member Executive Board, still needs to be ratified by the World Health Assembly tomorrow.

The sudden death of previous Director-General Jong-wook Lee in May led to a hard-fought race with an unprecedented 13 nominations (ScienceNOW, 22 May). Chan was always among the front-runners. She was the first candidate to win a place on the five-member short list announced on Monday, and she won the final vote today over Mexican health minister Julio Frenk by 24 to 10. She will be the first Chinese national to head a major United Nations organization, and some observers hope that her election might encourage China's government to take a more active role in tackling international health issues, including HIV/AIDS and bird flu.

Chan also has up-close and personal experience containing the type of influenza outbreaks about which public health experts worry the most. In 1997, when the first human cases of the H5N1 avian influenza strain showed up in Hong Kong, she quickly responded by ordering the culling of 1.5 million poultry on the island--a move widely credited with preventing the outbreak from spreading further. She received more mixed reviews for her handling of the 2003 outbreak of SARS, during which some critics say she could have pushed harder to get information from mainland China, where the disease apparently originated.

Although some have criticized Chan during the campaign as not being tough or visionary enough to lead the organization, Albert Osterhaus, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, says the choice is a good one. "She is a very strong leader, and translating science into policy is one of her strong points," he says. "In crisis situations, she knows how to handle things and how to maneuver through a political minefield." Chan, who studied medicine at the University of Western Ontario in Canada but spent most of her career working in Hong Kong, has declined to speak to reporters until the election is made official tomorrow.

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