The New Director-General of the World Health Organization

by Sam Halabi — Thursday, May 25, 2017

On May 23, 2017, the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, elected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as the new Director-General of WHO.  Dr Tedros, a former Ethiopian Health Minister, is the first African leader of the international organization.  WHO is distinct among international organizations for its ability to initiate both treaties and international regulations binding on party states.  The most important exercise of the latter authority has been the International Health Regulations (2005), which give the WHO Director-General significant discretion and control to declare public health emergencies of international concern and to recommend measures to address those emergencies.

There has in recent times (as with other international organizations including the UN) been a tendency to take the election of a given leader as representative of broader trends and concerns in the international community.  Margaret Chan, the outgoing D-G, is an infectious disease expert who handled Hong Kong’s responses to both the 1997 H5N1 influenza outbreak and the 2003 SARS epidemic.  Her leadership fit with an organization that had recently adopted sweeping changes to the International Health Regulations to reflect new and emerging infectious diseases.  Dr Tedros, by contrast, established himself as a malaria expert – 92% of malaria deaths occur in Africa – before leading Ethiopia’s Health Ministry while it created 3500 new health centers, increased the number of health workers by 38,000, and strengthened relationships with international funding organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation committed to building healthcare capacity in resource-poor countries.  Malaria deaths declined by 50% under his leadership, new HIV infections dropped dramatically, and infant mortality rates declined by 23%.  He also served as Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Ebola emergency.  He eventually served as the Chair of the Board of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

After an Ebola episode that left the WHO subject to significant criticism that it had moved too aggressively to an agenda focused on non-communicable diseases (which affect both rich and poor countries in large numbers), neglected diseases that uniquely affected low-resource countries, and failed to focus on core capacities under the IHR, Dr Tedros’s election makes a great deal of sense. 

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About Sam Halabi

Professor Halabi is a scholar of national and global health law with a specialization in health services, pharmaceutical and agrifood business organizations. He serves as a Scholar at the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, where he has also served as a special advisor to the Lancet-Georgetown University Commission on Global Health and Law. His work is published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine, the Harvard International Law Journal, the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics, the Lancet, and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). He has also published volumes on pharmaceutical regulation and global management of infectious disease with Oxford University Press and Elsevier Academic Press. Before earning his J.D. from Harvard Law School, Professor Halabi was awarded a British Marshall scholarship to study in the United Kingdom where he earned an M.Phil in International Relations from the University of Oxford (St. Antony’s College). During the 2003-04 academic year, he served as a Rotary International Ambassadorial Scholar at the American University of Beirut.

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