Criticism over handling of Sars does not hinder Margaret Chan's elevation Former director of health Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun has been promoted by the World Health Organisation to be its chief influenza pandemic expert. The appointment, less than two years after Dr Chan joined the WHO, shows the high regard she is held in by the world body despite criticism at home over her handing of the Sars outbreak. The appointment, as director, communicable diseases surveillance and response, and representative of the director-general for pandemic influenza, comes at a crucial time as the bird flu outbreak continues to spread in Asia. Dr Chan gained international prominence when she co-ordinated efforts to identify and control the bird flu H5N1 which jumped the species barrier for the first time in Hong Kong, killing six out of 18 people infected and led to an unprecedented culling of poultry. The latest bird flu outbreak has killed 54 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia since it emerged in Asia in late 2003. Dr Chan joined the WHO less than two years ago, as director of the protection of the human environment. She retired from the Hong Kong civil service in August 2003 to take up the job, just two months after the city was declared free of Sars, which killed 299 people out of 1,755 who fell sick. 'I feel very honoured and privileged to have this opportunity to work in an area [in which] I have a great deal of passion and some experience,' Dr Chan said yesterday from Geneva. 'I feel the heavy responsibility that comes with the new job. But I am very lucky to have a team of very talented, competent and committed colleagues in the department which has a very strong track record of excellent performance.' Although she was officially appointed on June 8, she had asked the WHO to keep the appointment low-profile as she got to know the department's 112 staff. 'This is important for me to understand their work and to listen to their views,' she said. Dick Thompson, spokesman in the WHO's Communicable Diseases Section, said Dr Chan's promotion was 'a brilliant move'. 'We worked together during Sars and I saw that she is tough as hell when the heat is on,' he said. 'It's no easy job being a senior public health official during an outbreak. There are critical decisions that have to be made - decisions that will affect human health, the economy and have political repercussions - and you have to make those decisions with incomplete information.' While Dr Chan is well respected internationally, her image in Hong Kong is mixed. A spokesman for the Department of Health yesterday welcomed her new appointment. 'The department is proud of Dr Chan. She is a public health expert and she has years of experience in disease control. We believe she will play an active role in global protection,' he said. Dr Chan was censured by the Legislative Council inquiry report into the handling of Sars, which led to the resignations of the secretary for health, welfare and food Yeoh Eng-kiong and Hospital Authority chairman Leong Che-hung. On Thursday, the Sars aftermath was also partly responsible for the decision by Hospital Authority chief executive William Ho Shiu-wei to step down.