Why new WHO boss is fit for post

The new director-general of WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, delivers his speech after his election in Geneva on Tuesday last week. PHOTO | WHO

What you need to know:

  • Dr Tedros is the first African to serve at that capacity, taking over from Dr Margareth Chan, a Hong Kong-Canadian physician, who has served the organisation for 10. Dr Chan delegated the People’s Republic of China from 2006 to 2017.

Dar es Salaam. This week, member states of the World Health Organisation elected Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 52, a biologist and public health guru from Ethiopia, as the new director-general. He begins serving his five-year term on July 1 this year.

Dr Tedros is the first African to serve at that capacity, taking over from Dr Margareth Chan, a Hong Kong-Canadian physician, who has served the organisation for 10. Dr Chan delegated the People’s Republic of China from 2006 to 2017.

Dr Tedros is the first director-general to be elected by WHO’s 194 member countries. Before, the selection was done by the WHO’s executive board — a rotating committee of 34 member countries, serving a three-year term.

The son of an engineer, Mr Adhanom Gebreyesus from Seraye, formely served as minister of Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs, from 2012-2016 and as minister of Health from 2005-2012. No wonder he was nominated to vie for the WHO top post by the government of Ethiopia.

He is said by many to be a well-educated researcher and devoted scientist. In 1986, he received his Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in biology from the University of Asmara, but he did not remain a mere biologist.

He later ventured into the public health sector after joining the ministry of Health of Ethiopia as a junior public health expert.

That was during the time Ethiopia was under the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police and the Territorial Army between 1974 and 1987. After the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam, Dr Tedros went back to school. He pursued a Master of Science (MSc) degree in Immunology of Infectious Diseases from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and subsequently received a PhD in community health from the University of Nottingham in 2000.

He announced his candidacy for the post WHO director-general on May 24 last year as the sole African candidate. He was also endorsed by the African Union and ministers of Health.

He stressed that his election to vie for the post was based on merit and his prolific national and global credentials. His campaign tagline was ‘Together for a Healthier World.’

He argued that he would bring about a fresh perspective to the WHO as he had “lived with the most pressing conditions of our time”. His launch got wide media coverage and support.

Earlier, during its 140th meeting in January 2017, the executive board of the WHO shortlisted Dr Tedros as the front runner out of six candidates through two rounds of secret voting.

This week, he came out on top in a three-way faceoff, knocking Dr Sania Nishtar, 54, from Pakistan, out of the competition. He defeated Dr David Nabarro, 67, from Britain in the final ballot, earning 133 votes to Dr Nabarro’s 50. There were two abstentions. The new WHO director-general will be the first from a developing country and he will be the first non-physician to lead the WHO.

He will be taking over an agency that is also widely seen to have badly bungled during the early days of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa. Multiple postmortem reports have called for significant reforms of the WHO in the wake of that outbreak.

Many public health experts are hopeful he can turn the agency around.

“As someone, who has worked tirelessly to reform health systems in Ethiopia and across Africa, he will bring about great insights and the political leadership necessary to restore trust in the WHO at a critical moment in its history,” said Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. “Dr Tedros’ commitment to immunisation is clear,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the vaccine alliance. “His work with Gavi as Ethiopia’s health minister helped boost the proportion of children reached by vaccines from less than half to more than two-thirds, preventing the deaths of thousands of children.”

His strong record in public health has a great contribution to this achievement. In 2001, Dr Tedros was appointed head of the Tigray Regional Health Bureau. As head of the bureau, he was credited for making 22.3 per cent reduction in HIV/Aids prevalence in the region and 68.5 per cent reduction in meningitis cases.

He oversaw a campaign to improve ICT access that installed computers and Internet connectivity to most of the region’s hospitals and clinics, whereas they had not been connected before.

In late 2003, he was appointed a state minister (deputy minister) of Health and served for over a year. It was during this time he started crafting his ambitious health reform agenda.

A globally recognised malaria researcher, he has co-authored numerous articles on this subject and other global health issues in prominent scientific publications, including Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology, The Lancet, Nature and Parasitologia and the British Medical Journal.

His seminal work earned him the distinction of Young Investigator of the Year from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and in 2003 he received the Young Public Health Researcher Award from the Ethiopian Public Health Association. In 2011, Dr Tedros became the first non-American recipient of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award conferred by the US National Foundation of Infectious Diseases.

In March 2012, he received the prestigious honorary fellowship from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Stanley T Woodward Lectureship, Yale University (2012).

He also received the Women Deliver Award for Perseverance for his tireless efforts to improve the lives of women and girls at the fourth Women Deliver Conference on May 19, 2016.

He has also served as chair of the Board of the Global Fund to Fight HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, as chair of the Roll Back Malaria (RBM) Partnership Board and as co-chair of the Board of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

He was named as one of the 50 people, who will change the world in 2012 by the UK Wired Magazine. The Magazine wrote Dr Tedros has used innovative techniques to save the lives of millions of Ethiopians.

Rather than building expensive hospitals, he has set up programmes to train 35,000 health workers. The workers then go on to provide care in nearly every community across Ethiopia — especially for women and children, who are often the most vulnerable and underserved.

The New African Magazine, a best-selling pan African magazine published in the UK, listed Dr Tedros as one of the 100 most influential Africans for 2015 in the category of politics and public service.

The magazine named him as “the trailblazer” and signified his reformist agenda as Minister of Health of Ethiopia, where he transformed the health sector of the country through massive deployment of health extension workers which has resulted in massive gains.