Dr Lee Jong-Wook

WHO director-general who led global campaigns against Sars, Aids, malaria and bird flu


Lee Jong-wook, physician: born Seoul 12 April 1945; staff, WHO 1983-2006, Director, Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunization, and Executive Secretary, Children's Vaccine Initiative 1994-98, Senior Policy Adviser to the Director-General 1998-99, Special Representative of the Director-General 1999-2000, Director, Stop TB 2000-03, Director-General 2003-06; married 1976 Reiko Kaburaki (one son); died Geneva 20 May 2006.

Lee Jong-wook was an outstanding leader of the World Health Organization. Appointed Director-General in 2003, Lee lobbied political leaders including George W. Bush, Jacques Chirac and President Hu Jintao of China. In July he was to have spoken at the G8 summit in St Petersburg, having been invited by President Vladimir Putin. He also talked to farmers, nurses, market stallholders, children. He was a good listener.

He reformed WHO by insisting on a rigorous financial strategy, reducing headquarters spending so that money could be moved to where it was needed. He introduced strict rules against tobacco across the United Nations, and converted the WHO car fleet to smaller, environmental vehicles.

Lee took up office at the time when the threat of Sars (serious acute respiratory syndrome) was diminishing, having been successfully contained. He announced straight away that his priorities were the global fight against Aids, malaria, tuberculosis, malaria, polio and tobacco. He worked tirelessly, visiting 60 countries in three years, and exploring the health implications of the Darfur refugee crisis and the Pakistan earthquake, as well as attending hospitals devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami. He was already a world leader in the fight against polio, TB and vaccine-preventable diseases of childhood.

He campaigned for clean water. He supported traditional medicines when these had demonstrated benefits and minimal risks. He led a campaign against single-therapy for malaria with artemesin, which wards off malaria but promotes resistance in the malaria parasite. He added two pills, mifepristone and misoprostol, to the WHO list of essential medicines. These provide a safe alternative to the 19 million unsafe abortions that take place annually in the world.

Shortly after taking up office, Lee was faced with containing the bird flu virus. He recognised that a lethal virus that could be transmitted from birds to humans would, sooner or later, mutate so that it could be spread from human to human, which could cause a pandemic similar to the flu virus that swept the world in 1917-18. He ensured that outbreaks were contained and that affected flocks were slaughtered. He arranged for WHO to stockpile three million treatment courses of Tamiflu, donated by the Roche drug company, and issued statements warning that it was unlikely there would be enough vaccine, drugs, health care workers and hospital capacity to cope. At the same time he reassured the world that no one had caught the disease from eating properly cooked poultry.

Time magazine named Lee as one of the world's most influential people in 2004. He was active in the global fight against tobacco, often stating that his own father had died of a tobacco- related disease.

He had worked and campaigned ceaselessly in the global battle against Aids, insisting that anti-HIV medication should be equally available to women and girls, as some countries gave it preferentially to males. He said, when he was appointed, that his mandate would be defined by the fight against HIV/Aids, particularly in the hardest-hit poorer countries. He introduced his "3 by 5" campaign - that three million Aids patients would have access to the medicines they needed by the end of 2005, and universal access by 2010.

Lee had been with WHO for 20 years before being appointed Director- General. He joined them in 1983, aged 37, based in the Philippines, working on polio control in the Western Pacific, and reducing its incidence by 90 per cent. Six years later he became regional adviser on chronic diseases, and then in 1990 director of disease prevention and control. In 1994 he moved to Geneva, as Director of the Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunization, a post he held for four years. The service he established is regarded as a model for increasing access not only to vaccines but also for drugs for other diseases of poverty.

He then worked as policy adviser and special representative of the then Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister who transformed WHO from a disillusioned, badly managed organisation to a high-profile agency that put health firmly on the global political agenda. Lee followed this by three years as head of the Stop TB initiative. This was an internationally admired public- private partnership, a coalition of 250 countries, donors, non-governmental organisations, industry and foundations.

When Brundtland retired in 2003, Lee was the only inside candidate for the job and the only one never to have held a ministerial or top UN post. There were fears that he lacked the necessary political skills, but he showed political acumen in persuading 53 members of the US Congress to write to the then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and to Tommy Thompson, the US health secretary, backing his candidacy. He tempered this political acumen with humour, charm, a light-hearted manner and a self-deprecating wit. Though a modest man, he was a born leader, and he led by example.

Lee was born in 1945, in Seoul; his father was a civil servant. He was five when the Korean War started, and his father was exiled to Taegu, 250 miles away. Lee, with his mother and two brothers, walked 250 miles searching for him in the cold of winter. The journey took three months and when they arrived his father initially thought they were beggars. Mike Leavitt, the present US health secretary, felt that was why Lee decided to devote himself to public service.

He studied medicine at Seoul National University, graduating when he was 31, and did a postgraduate degree in public health and preventive medicine at the University of Hawaii. He then spent two years in American Samoa as leprosy and TB physician at the LBJ Tropical Medicine Center, before joining WHO.

Lee embraced life in Switzerland to the full - his recreations were skiing, tennis, scuba-diving, mountain biking and walking. He had a wide-ranging intellect and a good memory, and enjoyed classical music and the theatre. As well as his native Korean, he spoke fluent English, and good French and Japanese.

He was at an official function in Geneva on Saturday when he collapsed with a stroke. The WHO annual assembly, which was taking place when he died, observed a two-minute silence and adjourned for half an hour. Their flag flew at half-mast.

Caroline Richmond

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?