WHO leader dies

By ASNS Correspondent

The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr LEE Jong-wook, died Monday, May 22 morning following a short illness.

His death took place on the eve of the World Health Assembly, to be attended by all the 192 members including Kenya whose delegation is being led by Charity Ngilu. Dr Lee was meant to lead the Assembly at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters.

Morning Dr Lee’s sudden death, the UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan said, "The world has lost a great man today. LEE Jong-wook was a man of conviction and passion. He was a strong voice for the right of every man, woman and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people."

Dr Lee, a national of the Republic of Korea, was a world leader in public health. He tackled every challenge with passion, dedication and professionalism. He was unfalteringly committed to WHO's mission, to help all people to attain "the highest possible level of health."

"He tackled the most difficult problems head on, while upholding the highest principles. He will be very gravely missed, but history will mark LEE Jong-wook's many contributions to public health," added Annan.

He assumed his WHO post on 21 July, 2003. In his very first speech to WHO staff as Director-General, Dr Lee vowed that WHO would do the right things, in the right places.

To him, the right places were the countries that most needed WHO's support. In his nearly three years as Director-General, Dr LEE traveled to more than 60 countries, to visit health programmes and the people they affected, and to meet with the most senior leaders.

Dr Lee was the architect behind the WHO’s "3 by 5" initiative- to ensure three million people with HIV/AIDS would have access to the medicines they needed by the end of 2005.

The "3 by 5" transformed the way leaders thought about AIDS medicines for people in poor countries. While the world fell short of the target, the successes and momentum of "3 by 5" demonstrated that universal access to medicines was possible - and had become a moral imperative.
While personally a modest man, Dr LEE was a bold leader.

A few days before his death, Dr Lee explained his vision of "universal access" to staff in his office as he worked on his speech to the World Health Assembly.

He said: "There can be no 'comfort level' in the fight against HIV. We must keep up the pressure to get prevention, treatment and care linked and working. A key outcome of "3 by 5" was the commitment to universal access to treatment by 2010. But what does universal access mean? To me, this means that no one should die because they can't get drugs. It means that no one will miss being tested, diagnosed, treated and cared for because there aren't clinics."

As Director-General, he led global efforts to tackle avian influenza and to prepare for a human influenza pandemic. Pointing to the health, social and economic devastation of historical influenza pandemics, he stressed repeatedly that every head of state should ensure their country developed a national pandemic preparation plan. He personally met with many heads of state, including US President George Bush, President Jacques Chirac, of France, and President Hu Jintao of China.

He took the fight against infectious diseases, and particularly the threat of pandemic influenza to a new level. He had a simple message: 'Prepare for a pandemic now, before it is too late." World leaders took it to heart and acted. Because of his conviction, the world is now better prepared for pandemic influenza than it has ever has been in history.

He considered WHO's job as one of huge responsibility to its 192 Member States, and the health needs of their people.

He reformed the 192 member UN body charged with handling global health problems to help ensure it could meet those needs more effectively, with a strong focus on recruiting and retaining people with the right skills. He insisted on a rigorous financial strategy which reduced spending at Headquarters, and gave more to the countries where funding is most needed. This required tough decisions, but he did not hesitate to make them.

He was 61 years old. He is survived by his wife and son, two brothers and one sister and their families.

A press release from the WHO said that following Dr LEE Jong-wook's death, Dr Anders Nordström - currently Assistant Director-General for General Management - will serve as Acting Director-General.

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