- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

Top WHO post open

The Geneva-based World Health Organization will chose its seventh leader this week, using Byzantine customs that make handicapping U.N. appointments such a crapshoot.

Starting today, the 34 members of the WHO executive board will write the names of their five favorite candidates on slips of paper, to be tallied anonymously. Because each ballot must have five names, it is widely assumed that governments will mark their chosen candidate and then pick four others who are not running strong.

The 13 candidates to succeed Dr. Lee Jong-wook, 61, who died of a sudden illness on May 22, include a French gastroenterologist with a taste for adventure, a Spanish industrial engineer with a business background and the former prime minister of Mozambique.

There are also a few medical doctors and several current or former ministers of health. The variety of candidates is unusual, insiders say, but what really sets apart today’s vote from those of the past is the size of the field. It has resulted in an informal atmosphere surrounding the proceedings, observers say, complete with whistle-stop visits to world capitals on the WHO executive board and smear campaigns against high-profile candidates.

Presumed front-runners include Dr. Margaret Chan, Hong Kong’s health minister during the 2003 outbreak in Asia of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), who now oversees the WHO’s infectious diseases unit; Dr. Julio Frenk, Mexico’s health minister and a former WHO bureaucrat; Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO chief for Western Asia; and Bernard Kouchner, France’s health minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders.

‘It’s like a lottery’

“Nobody quite understands why there are so many candidates this time,” one observer said, “but it implies a lottery, and that’s an interesting situation.”

Public health officials also note with concern that the Global Fund, an international group set up to raise and distribute money to help poor countries combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, failed last week to agree on a candidate to replace its departing leader, Dr. Richard Feachem. The search was reopened after the vote became deadlocked along north-south lines.

Candidates for the six-year World Health Organization post have been hopscotching the globe seeking support within the sprawling executive board. The WHO director-general oversees tens of thousands of staff members around the world and has primary responsibility for public health policy. The organization coordinates international responses to pandemics, advises governments on health policy, commissions research and more.

Candidates to succeed Dr. Lee include a number of Asians, a likely response to the SARS outbreak in that part of the world that killed scores and now is threatened by the avian flu.

But even well-known and apparently qualified candidates face an uphill battle: Dr. Chan is the target of a whispering campaign saying she didn’t do enough early on to halt the SARS outbreak when it reached Hong Kong.

Dr. Frenk of Mexico is said to be in collusion with tobacco companies for failing to impose taxes and other burdens on that industry. Dr. Omi’s book about the fight against SARS was seen as grandstanding. Dr. Kouchner has his own temper and impolitic remarks dragging on his campaign.

By tomorrow evening, the WHO executive board is expected to name a winner, who would be approved by the 193-member organization.

Panama for Council

After 48 similar ballots, Guatemala and Venezuela have agreed to throw in the towel and let a third nation represent Latin America and the Caribbean on the Security Council next year.

After weeks of posturing, negotiating, back-stabbing, politicking and bribing, the two have decided to throw their support behind Panama, which is all but certain to be elected to the seat when the General Assembly takes its 49th vote tomorrow morning.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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