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New WHO Director to Give Priority to Health Problems in Africa - 2003-01-28

The director-general elect of the World Health Organization says one of his main priorities will be to tackle health problems and poverty in Africa. Jong Wook Lee spoke to reporters shortly after his selection in Geneva.

Until his nomination, Jong Wook Lee, was little known outside the organization he soon will head. Dr. Lee has worked at the World Health Organization for 19 years, and is currently the head of its anti-tuberculosis program.

The 57-year-old South Korean beat out stiff competition for the World Health Organization's top job from four other contenders, including two from Africa.

Dr. Lee told journalists the WHO would be totally committed to the United Nations millennium development goals, which aim to cut poverty in half by 2015. He said tackling Africa's health problems will be his priority, especially the fight against HIV-AIDS.

"The fact that I am coming from outside of Africa makes me feel more free to do more for Africa. It is my belief that Africa should be my priority," he stressed. "Africa is close to my heart and I will spend much time and energy to solve the African problems."

Dr. Lee was elected by the WHO executive board. The vote must be formally approved in May by the 192 member World Health Assembly.

He will replace Gro Harlem Brundtland, who steps down in July after five years in office. Dr. Lee emphasized he will make changes in the World Health Organization.

He praises Dr. Brundtland's achievements in the areas of tobacco control and fighting infectious diseases, and he says these programs will continue. But, Dr. Lee noted that WHO will also be facing new challenges, and will need to take a stand on some controversial issues.

"We have to deal with some new technologies, including the cloning, gene therapy and technologies and so on," he went on to say. "So clearly whenever this issue comes up the world looks to WHO for answers. So, we really have to look at this with the evidence and also we have to tell the world what is the view of WHO."

The new director-general elect, Jong Wook Lee, will inherit an organization with thousands of staff members around the world, and a budget of more than $1 billion. He said he wants to shape the WHO, one of the largest U.N. organizations, into an efficiently run agency that is transparent in the way it spends money.