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Ethiopian Wins Race to Head World Health Organization

Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus won the race to be the next head of the WHO Tuesday, becoming the first African to lead the giant agency.
Image: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
New World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, waves after his election during the World Health Assembly Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus won the race to be the next head of the World Health Organization Tuesday, becoming the first African to lead the Geneva-based United Nations agency.

The former health minister and foreign minister, who vowed to make universal health care his priority, won over half the votes from 189 member states in the first round and prevailed in a third-round ballot against Britain's David Nabarro.

Image: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus from Ethiopia, newly elected as Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), smiles after his election during the 70th World Health Assembly Valentin Flauraud / EPA

"It's a victory day for Ethiopia and for Africa," Ethiopia's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva Negash Kebret Botora said.

Tedros, as he is widely known, told health ministers at the WHO's annual assembly after his election: "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 health care without impoverishment. This needs to improve dramatically," he added.

Related: WHO Botched Ebola Outbreak Response

Six candidates sought to take the helm at the WHO, which is tasked with combating disease outbreaks and chronic illnesses.

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

UNAIDS, the vaccine alliance GAVI, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers welcomed his appointment.

Related: WHO Spends More on Travel Than on AIDS

"Tedros has the power to herald a new era in how the world prepares for and responds to epidemics, including building partnerships, strengthening public health systems, and developing new vaccines and therapies that are available to all who need them," Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the medical charity Wellcome Trust, said in a statement.

Tedros will begin his five-year term after Dr. Margaret Chan, a former Hong Kong health director, steps down on June 30.

Related: Drug-Resistant Superbugs are a Fundamental Threat, WHO Says

Chan leaves a mixed legacy after her 10 years on the job, especially because of WHO's slow response to West Africa's Ebola epidemic in 2013-2016, which killed 11,300 people.

In a last pitch before voting began, Tedros appealed to ministers by promising to represent their interests and to ensure more countries got top jobs at the Geneva-based WHO.

"I will listen to you. I was one of you. I was in your shoes and I can understand you better," he said.

Tedros was widely seen as having the support of about 50 African votes, but questions about his role in restricting human rights and Ethiopia's cover-up of a cholera outbreak surfaced late in the race, threatening to tarnish his appeal.