August 2, 2006

HK candidate for WHO job to focus on chronic diseases

By Tan Ee Lyn

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's former health director,
who is running for the top post at the World Health
Organization, said on Wednesday that she would focus on chronic
diseases such as AIDS and tuberculosis.

Margaret Chan, who joined the WHO in 2003 and is now its
assistant director-general for communicable diseases, said it
would do well to remember that chronic diseases were
responsible for 60 percent of the world's mortality.

"Infectious diseases have the drama effect, the media
effect ... the concentration is always on communicable diseases
and this is something I would like to change a bit," Chan said.

She added that she would tackle chronic diseases like
HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, maternal and child health
issues, and environmental problems such as water and

The Geneva-based United Nations health agency will elect a
new chief in November, following the death of WHO
director-general Lee Jong-wook on May 22.

So far, Chan and Shigeru Omi, WHO regional director for the
Western Pacific who is from Japan, have declared their

Beijing, which took back Hong Kong from Britain in 1997,
has hailed Chan's candidacy as an honor to China. It has also
promised to bankroll her election campaign, which will take her
to over 20 countries in the months ahead.

But Chan made clear that China cannot expect any favors
from her if she clinches the job.

"If elected, I'm not serving Hong Kong's interests and I'm
not serving China's interests," Chan told a news conference in
Hong Kong after meeting senior Chinese officials in Beijing
over the weekend. "I will not be partial toward China ... I am
serving the world's interests."

While she is lauded around the world for helping fight bird
flu and SARS in Hong Kong, the former Hong Kong health chief is
not fondly remembered here.

In Hong Kong, newspapers ridiculed her for giving
assurances that eating chicken was safe, just days before the
government ordered a mass cull of poultry to get rid of the
H5N1 bird flu virus at the end of 1997.

And in 2003, lawmakers criticized Chan and other senior
Hong Kong officials for failing to act quickly to tackle the
SARS epidemic, which ended up killing nearly 300 people here.

Outside the legislative council building on Wednesday, a
relative of a Hong Kong person who died in 2003 of SARS held up
a placard calling on Chan to apologize and admit her blunders.

But Chan said it was important to look forward.

"SARS was important in the sense that it was a wake up
call. It highlighted the importance of having a very robust
surveillance system to help us pick up early problems with new
and emerging (diseases)," Chan said, adding that there were
many "blind spots in the world."