World Health Organization Elects First Director-General From Africa : Goats and Soda The new leader, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, will be expected to reform the bureaucratic agency and deal with the world's growing health problems.

World Health Organization Elects First Director-General From Africa

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Health officials from more than 180 countries have elected a new leader for the World Health Organization. He's a former health minister from Ethiopia. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on his background and the challenges he'll face in this role.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: After two rounds of secret balloting, delegates at the World Health Assembly in Geneva chose Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to be the next director general of the WHO. Tedros, who goes by his first name, won the job over Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist from Pakistan, and David Nabarro, a WHO veteran from Britain who led the U.N.'s response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014. All three candidates promised to reform the famously bureaucratic WHO, to champion universal health care and to make the world safer from the next global pandemic.

In his final pitch for why he should lead the WHO, Tedros emphasized his experience as Ethiopia's health minister when he oversaw the expansion of basic health services across the country.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: In six years, we built more than 16,000 health posts, 3,000 health centers, deployed more than 40,000 health extension workers.

BEAUBIEN: This model of basic but universal health care in the East African nation has been widely praised.


TEDROS: It was a massive effort delivering massive results.

BEAUBIEN: But it was also carried out by an authoritarian government in Addis Ababa. During a campaign in which many people have been calling for more openness at the WHO, Tedros was criticized for Ethiopia's habit of downplaying domestic cholera outbreaks by labeling them acute watery diarrhea. But Tedros promised that transparency will be at the heart of the WHO once he's in charge.


TEDROS: WHO must evolve to be more transparent, responsive, effectively managed, adequately resourced.

BEAUBIEN: Tedros takes over a World Health Organization that has struggled to live up to expectations. The WHO sets global health policy and advocates for improved living conditions, especially for the world's poor. But it's also been accused of being overly bureaucratic, slow, wasteful and ineffective. The outgoing director general, Margaret Chan, admitted that the WHO failed to respond quickly or forcefully enough to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. Paul Spiegel, the director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says the health challenges facing the world are growing more and more complex.

PAUL SPIEGEL: This is a make-or-break time for the World Health Organization.

BEAUBIEN: Infectious disease outbreaks like Ebola and Zika remain a major concern.

SPIEGEL: We're still waiting, for example, a massive influenza outbreak that could kill tens of millions of people.

BEAUBIEN: In addition to outbreaks, non-communicable diseases like heart disease and diabetes have become huge health problems globally. Spiegel says the world right now needs strong WHO, and the WHO needs a strong leader. Tedros, who will be the first African to be the director general of the WHO, will step into that post in Geneva on July 1. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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