World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan leaves big shoes to fill

Former Hong Kong director of health has spent a decade at the global body dealing with one crisis after another, and succeeded more often than not

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 1:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2017, 1:17am

For 20 years, Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has been in the front line, and often the hot seat, of battles against new infectious disease threats to mankind, from the first recorded H5N1 bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2013 and, more recently, to a surge in the Zika virus linked to brain birth defects in South America.

The former Hong Kong director of health is retiring as director-general of the World Health Organisation after serving more than 10 years in the role. On the front line she will be remembered for rising to the challenges of severe acute respiratory syndrome and Ebola in particular and the hard lessons learned. But her most valuable legacy, if the world takes up her initiative seriously, may yet turn out to be a global action plan on bacterial resistance to antibiotics, which if not curbed could make common infections life threatening once again.

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Originally an assistant WHO director, Chan was catapulted into the global health job, with China’s strong diplomatic support, by the sudden death of her South Korean predecessor Lee Jong-wook. Her election was vindication of a kind after gruelling inquiries into the painful Sars episode, with question marks over failure to heed warnings, or take effective steps to stop the virus spreading outside hospitals, or promptly quarantine infected buildings. This was to a degree harsh if not unfair to health officials, given the lack of transparency over the preceding outbreak on the mainland.

To her credit, in the Ebola epidemic, Chan admitted to mistakes, such as being taken by surprise and being slow to recognise that the virus in West Africa would behave differently from previous outbreaks in Central Africa. That said, she was done no favours by poor leadership on the ground, the result of some politically influenced appointments to key regional WHO positions.

Chan rallied governments to commit to prevention and control of lifestyle-related killers such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, which are often linked to bad diet, smoking and lack of exercise. The first Chinese WHO chief leaves big shoes to fill for the first African, Ethiopian nominee Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.