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

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