In an opening address to the 60th World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan promised to vigorously work to improve health for Africans and for women. In a wide-ranging review of global health issues, Dr. Chan also reaffirmed her commitment to address the threat of an avian flu pandemic. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

World Health Organization Chief Margaret Chan says Africa will not experience economic growth until the burden of infectious disease is reduced. She emphasizes Africa must not become the continent left behind by development.

Last year, the African Union approved the continent's first comprehensive health strategy. Dr. Chan says she will work with Africa's health ministers to implement the strategy.

"The main focus of the strategy is on the urgent need to strengthen health systems," she said. "The ability to deliver essential interventions to those in need is regarded as the greatest challenge facing health care in Africa. The strategy further emphasizes the need to revitalize the primary health care approach."

Dr. Chan says improving the health of women is critical because of their role in reproduction, as caregivers, and, most importantly, because women are agents of change.

"They can lift households and communities out of poverty," said Dr. Chan.  "But, women will not realize their potential, also as agents of change, unless they are given opportunities. And, most especially, opportunities to improve their economic status."

This is the first time Dr. Chan is addressing the assembly as WHO director general. She was elected in November following the sudden death of her predecessor, Dr. Lee Jong-wook, who died on the eve of the 59th Assembly.

In a tribute, Dr. Chan recalled Dr. Lee's commitment to fighting a potentially deadly bird flu pandemic. She says she will continue his work.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Mike Leavitt, broadly embraced Dr. Chan's global health agenda. He stressed the need for all nations to pull together to face the global threat of a potentially serious avian flu pandemic.

"In the past few months, the media buzz about the bird flu has died down a little, but the H5N1 strain of avian influenza has not. It remains a serious danger that all of us must face together," said Leavitt. 

"We continue to call on countries everywhere to share influenza samples openly and rapidly and without pre-conditions. No nation can go it alone," he added. 

Indonesia stopped sharing virus samples with the World Health Organization fearing drug companies would develop vaccines that would be too costly for poor countries. Leavitt says the global community has to work together to make sure there is enough vaccine for everyone.