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WHO Director General-Elect Has 'Ambitious Agenda'

The new Director General-elect of the World Health Organization, WHO, says he will expand and strengthen measures to respond to newly emerging diseases such as SARS.

Jong-Wook Lee, a 58-year-old physician and expert in infectious diseases, is the first person from South Korea chosen to head a United Nations Agency. On Wednesday, the World Health Assembly officially elected him as the next director general of the World Health Organization, a post he will assume in July when the WHO's current chief, Gro Harlem Brundtland steps down after five years in office.

Dr. Lee acknowledges that he has set himself an ambitious agenda for the coming years. To begin with, he says there is an urgent need to create stronger disease surveillance systems around the world so as to quickly identify and respond to newly emerging illnesses.

"In my view, SARS is a wake-up call for all of us," said Dr. Lee. "So, we should not be complacent about our ability and our member states ability to deal with SARS problems because my view is this will not be the last similar problem we will be facing in the coming years. So, that we need to invest more money."

Dr. Lee says he would like to start a fund with an initial grant of $200 million to strengthen the ability of WHO to combat SARS and future diseases.

But, the new WHO chief says there are other older killer diseases that must be tackled aggressively. Among them is HIV/AIDS. He says nearly 50 million people globally are suffering from this disease, 27 million of them are in Africa. He says it is terrible to realize that 25 percent of adults in the hardest-hit areas may be killed by AIDS within 10 years.

"I really would like to scale up our work in this field and as I said I would like to work with all the stake holders so that we can really put some larger scale treatment plans in Africa and in other places," he said. "So, this is a very big task. HIV is an old problem, it is 20 years old. But, for me it is a very important issue."

Dr. Lee says work begun by his predecessor, Gro Harlem Brundtland to roll back malaria and to control tuberculosis will continue. He notes that the World Health Assembly has just adopted the world's first international tobacco control treaty aimed at curbing smoking around the world. He says it took five years to achieve this agreement. He promises to spend a substantial amount of time during the next five years to make the treaty effective.