Nominee World Health Organization (WHO)
Fabrice Coffrini  /  AFP - Getty Images
The executive board of the World Health Organization chose China's Margaret Chan to be the next director-general from five candidates. She fills the post vacated by the death of Lee Jong-wook in May.
updated 11/8/2006 9:15:51 AM ET 2006-11-08T14:15:51

Bird flu expert Dr. Margaret Chan was selected Wednesday as the world’s top health official, making her the first Chinese national chosen for such a high-ranking U.N. post, delegates said.

The victory for China, which had nominated Chan, indicated Beijing’s interest in playing a bigger role in global affairs.

Sha Zukang, China’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, smiled broadly after the vote and said he was pleased “Absolutely. One hundred percent.”

The executive board of the World Health Organization chose Chan to be WHO’s next director-general from five candidates to fill the post vacated by the death of Lee Jong-wook in May.

Chan has to be approved by a two-thirds majority Thursday at a special session of the agency’s governing World Health Assembly, comprised of all 193 member countries. Past votes have followed the recommendation of the executive board.

Chan has said she would be independent if elected to a position some regard as the second most-important in the United Nations system.

China has recently come under criticism for allegedly dragging its feet in reporting outbreaks of bird flu to WHO, and being slow to supply samples of new strains to the global body for analysis.

“You need to leave behind your nationality because you’re serving the world,” Chan said as she prepared for the race over the summer.

“If elected, I’m not serving Hong Kong’s interests. I’m not serving China’s interests. I’m serving the world’s interests. That’s a very important message to get clear,” she said.

Appointed Hong Kong’s director of public health in 1994 while the city was still under British rule, she faced her biggest test when the city was hit by bird flu in 1997 and by SARS — or severe acute respiratory syndrome — in 2003. Several hundred people died.

The two diseases dealt a heavy blow to Hong Kong’s economy, and Chan ordered swift action to contain the virus.

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Headed off major crisis
The city reported the world’s first known human outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus in 1997, when 18 people were infected and 6 died. Chan is credited with heading off a major human health crisis by ordering the slaughter of Hong Kong’s entire poultry population — about 1.5 million birds.

Chan took over as WHO’s influenza pandemic chief in 2005 and became WHO’s assistant director-general, leading the organization’s efforts to fight the spread of communicable diseases and prepare to fight a pandemic if bird flu mutates into a strain easily transmitted among humans.

Chan, who earned her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978 and has spent most of her career in administration.

The other candidates in the final shortlist were Mexican Health Minister Julio Frenk; Dr. Shigeru Omi, a Japanese national who heads WHO’s operations in Asia; Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado Mendez; and Kazem Behbehani, a senior WHO official from Kuwait.

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