Ethiopian first African to win top job at WHO

DR TEDROS ADHANOM, who will begin his term as WHO director-general on July 1.
DR TEDROS ADHANOM, who will begin his term as WHO director-general on July 1.

Ex-minister pledges to reform UN agency and make universal healthcare his top goal

GENEVA • Ethiopia's Dr Tedros Adhanom has been elected as the new head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), becoming the first African at the helm of an agency widely seen as needing major reforms.

The former Ethiopian health minister, who has pledged to shake up the United Nation's public health body, beat Dr David Nabarro of Britain and Dr Sania Nishtar of Pakistan after three rounds of voting.

Jubilant supporters, including one waving an Ethiopian flag, surrounded Dr Tedros, a 52-year-old malaria specialist, after the final result was announced on Tuesday in the assembly hall at the UN's Geneva headquarters.

In his first remarks as the WHO's director-general-elect, Dr Tedros vowed to "reclaim... trust from member states and from every citizen in the world".

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He pledged that delivering universal healthcare, especially to the world's most impoverished, would be his top priority.

"All roads lead to universal coverage. This will be my central priority," he said. "At present, only about a half of the world's people have access to healthcare without impoverishment. This needs to improve dramatically."

The WHO is perhaps the most influential UN agency, charged with combating disease outbreaks and chronic illnesses.

MAIN PRIORITY

All roads lead to universal coverage. This will be my central priority. At present, only about a half of the world's people have access to healthcare without impoverishment. This needs to improve dramatically.

DR TEDROS ADHANOM, who will begin his term as WHO director-general on July 1.

The agency said Dr Tedros had led a "comprehensive reform effort"of Ethiopia's health system, creating health centres and jobs.

Dr Tedros will begin his five-year term on July 1, succeeding Dr Margaret Chan, a Hong Kong native whose decade-long tenure was marred by the agency's fiercely criticised slow response to the Ebola epidemic in west Africa from 2013 to last year, which killed 11,300 people.

Health officials, including from Washington, a key WHO donor, said the agency's new leadership needed to get emergency response right.

"We know that the next health emergency is not a question of 'if' but 'when'," US Health Secretary Tom Price said in Geneva earlier on Tuesday.

"When it happens, the world will turn to the WHO for guidance and for leadership. We need to be sure it is up to the task," he told the Swiss Press Club.

Dr Tedros becomes the first African to lead the WHO and had unanimous backing from the African Union, which claimed that the continent deserved a shot to lead the agency.

Tuesday marked the first time that the WHO's 194 member states got to choose the agency's leader. Previously, the executive committee offered just one candidate for states to rubber stamp.

The WHO has already initiated a range of reforms since the Ebola crisis, but experts say the new chief still faces a huge task.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2017, with the headline 'Ethiopian first African to win top job at WHO'. Print Edition | Subscribe