Lee Jong-wook, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), died in Geneva, Switzerland, this morning after having undergone emergency surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain on Saturday. Lee, 61 and a Korean national, had worked at all levels of WHO for 23 years; his 5-year term at the helm had begun in July 2003.
The news of Lee's sudden death shocked participants at the 59th World Health Assembly, which started in Geneva today and where Lee was supposed to speak this afternoon. He had fallen ill during an official luncheon on Saturday. "On Friday afternoon, he was still in very good health and spirits, making jokes and working on his speech," says his spokeswoman Christine McNabb. "Lee not only had long experience with global health, but real energy and real drive as well," says William Foege, a senior investigator on child development at the Task Force for Child Survival and Development who has known Lee for decades.
Lee began his WHO career battling leprosy in the South Pacific. He moved to the Western Pacific Regional Office in Manila in 1986; between 1990 and 1994, he led the fight to eradicate polio in that region. "He was very effective in pushing that program forward," says Walter Dowdle, a senior polio consultant to WHO. Lee joined WHO global headquarters in Geneva in 1994; in 2000 he became director of the Stop TB Department.
As director-general, Lee made the 3-by-5 campaign, an effort to get three million HIV-infected people antiviral drugs by 2005, one of his main goals. The campaign missed its target, as its fierce critics had predicted it would. Still, the project triggered a movement toward treatment for all that brought some of the critics around--including Joep Lange, director of the Center for Poverty-Related Communicable Diseases at the University of Amsterdam and a former president of the International AIDS Society. "It was a bluff at the time," Lange says, "but it has had a very positive impact."
Today, WHO announced that assistant director-general Anders Nordström, a Norwegian, will serve as acting director-general until a successor to Lee has been elected. WHO's executive board, which has to call the election, is slated to meet after next week, but it's unclear whether it will take up the issue at that meeting, McNabb says.
One strong candidate to replace Lee would be Mexican health minister Julio Frenk Mora, who introduced universal health care coverage in his country and has emerged as an important voice in global health, says Gerald Keusch, associate dean for global health at Boston University School of Public Health. "It's hard to think of anyone who would be better," he says--and Frenk will be out of a job when the government of President Vicente Fox resigns later this year. Another great candidate, Keusch says, would be the Belgian head of UNAIDS Peter Piot, who narrowly lost the race for WHO's top job to Lee in 2003.