World health chief dies

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GENEVA (AP) – Dr. Lee Jong-wook, who led the U.N. health agency’s battles against SARS and bird flu, died Monday following surgery for a blood clot in the brain. He was 61.

Tributes praised Lee for his effectiveness in spurring the world to build its defenses against a potentially deadly flu pandemic during his tenure as director-general of the World Health Organization.

“The world has lost a great man today,” said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “He tackled the most difficult problems head on, while upholding the highest principles.”

Lee fell ill Saturday while attending a function in Geneva and underwent surgery later that day, the agency said. Anders Nordstrom of Sweden will take over as WHO’s acting director-general.

The opening session of the World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of the 192 members of WHO, observed two minutes of silence Monday, and flags flew at half-staff outside the U.N. European headquarters building, where the meeting took place.

Lee, who became director-general of WHO in 2003 as the agency was winding up its battle against the SARS outbreak in Asia, worked for the agency for 23 years.

He was the first South Korean to head a U.N. agency, after winning praise for his low-key but efficient management style as head of the agency’s tuberculosis program, and was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine in 2004.

Lee initially said his priority was to improve international monitoring to help tackle outbreaks of diseases like SARS and that his mandate would be defined by the fight against HIV/AIDS, particularly in the hardest-hit poor countries.

But his time in office came to be dominated by the high-profile spread of bird flu through Asia, Europe and Africa and its potential for causing a human influenza pandemic.

A keen sportsman, Lee also introduced a ban on hiring smokers to work at WHO.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, who traveled with Lee last year to six southeast Asian countries to learn about a possible influenza pandemic, said he believed Lee chose to devote himself to public service because of his experience of hardship at an early age in war-torn Korea.

“He spoke with me of three difficult and arduous months, when he and his mother walked mile after mile after mile in search of his father, who was during that cold winter in exile,” Leavitt said.

Lee oversaw a strengthening of WHO’s surveillance systems to protect against pandemic influenza, meeting with world leaders to highlight the potential threat, including President Bush and President Hu Jintao of China.

A tuberculosis expert who had previously run WHO’s Stop TB program, Lee replaced former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland as director-general.

Lee – known for his lighthearted manner at news conferences, when he often joked with journalists – was the only WHO insider in the race for the top job in 2003 and the only candidate never to have held a ministerial or top U.N. post.

“He was a rare individual,” said Dr. Mario Raviglione, who took over as head of the Stop TB program. “He didn’t talk much. When he spoke, he knew exactly why. He was appreciated because he knew how to talk when he needed to, and to tell a lot of jokes. He was able to be witty all the time, helping to put things into perspective and not treat everything like a tragedy.”

Raviglione said Lee “had very clear ideas of what he wanted to do and was really committed to the problems of international health.”

“It is very sad that Dr Lee leaves us at a time when his leadership was much needed, given WHO’s crucial role in addressing today’s threats to global health,” said the top U.N. AIDS official Peter Piot.

Lee is survived by his wife and a son.

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