Race for UN health agency chief down to 2 candidates

Switzerland WHO
China's Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, WHO, waves during the 70th World Health Assembly at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, May 22, 2017. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

GENEVA (AP)(STL.News) — The race to lead the World Health Organization was down to two candidates Tuesday after Pakistan’s Dr. Sania Nishtar was eliminated in a first round of voting.

The vote left Britain’s Dr. David Nabarro and Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former minister of health, competing to succeed Dr. Margaret Chan, who is ending a 10-year tenure.

After the first round, Ghebreyesus had more votes than the other two candidates combined: 95 versus 52 for Nabarro and 38 for Nishtar.

Health ministers, diplomats and other high-level envoys were voting to choose WHO’s next director-general, a post with considerable power in setting medical priorities that affect billions of people and declaring when crises like disease outbreaks evolve into global emergencies.

Of the U.N. health agency’s 194 member states, 185 were eligible to cast ballots; nine others were either in arrears on their dues or not represented at the gathering.

In his address to delegates, Tedros, the only non-medical doctor in the race, said it was almost “pure luck” that he was competing to lead WHO. He noted that when he was growing up in Ethiopia, his 7-year-old brother was killed by a common childhood disease, and it easily could have been him.

Among other pledges, Tedros said he would work “tirelessly to fulfill WHO’s promise of universal health care.” The former health minister has been dogged by allegations that he covered up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia, and protesters have occasionally interrupted proceedings at the meeting.

Second to speak was Nabarro, who acknowledged that some have felt “let down” by WHO and want it to be more relevant, responsive and reliable.

Nabarro said he knows “how the kitchen works in the United Nations” and cited lessons learned from WHO’s mistake-ridden response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Nishtar was last to appeal for votes. She said she decided to go into public health after being told that the hospital where she worked in Pakistan would start using recycled catheters for patients who couldn’t pay.

Nishtar cited her experience leading non-governmental organizations, saying the expertise would help her bridge the numerous polarizing situations in public health.

She promised to bring accountability to WHO and said she was committed to visiting countries “not to cut ribbons but to work with you.”

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