The WHO yesterday announced the sudden death of Director-General Lee Jong-wook, stunning ministers and senior officials from 192 countries at the opening of the agency's flagship annual assembly.
Lee died in the intensive care unit of Geneva's University Hospital at 7:43am after undergoing emergency surgery on Saturday to relieve a blood clot on his brain, the UN agency said in a statement.
The 61-year-old South Korean had been taken ill earlier in the day.
Spanish Health Minister Elena Salgado, who was chairing the assembly, made the announcement at the start of the meeting yesterday.
"I regret to inform you that Dr. Lee Jong-wook, director-general of the World Health Organization, died this morning," Salgado said, adding: "For all of us, this is very sad news."
The silence in the assembly hall at the UN's European headquarters was punctuated by gasps of surprise from ministers and officials, while many WHO staff were visibly fighting back tears. The assembly then observed a formal two-minute silence before the session was suspended for an hour.
Lee, a longstanding specialist on tuberculosis at the UN health agency, was elected to lead the WHO in 2003 for a five-year term.
Nicholas Thorne, British ambassador to the UN, said that the 192 member states would struggle to find a replacement.
"He was a man of considerable significance and a very effective head of the WHO. It's going to be extremely difficult to replace him," Thorne said.
Lee's formal deputy, Anders Nordstrom of Sweden, will serve as acting director-general until a replacement is found, the WHO said.
Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Kau (高英茂) offered his condolences to Lee's family yesterday on behalf of the government. He praised Lee for promoting the "no gap" policy in sustaining the world-wide disease prevention network.
"When I first heard of his death, I felt it was a great pity. We believe he had the resources to help Taiwan while finding a balance between China's opposition and Taiwan's wishes for WHO participation," Kau said.
"Lee had made a positive effort in working to help Taiwan as he had shown a great deal of goodwill in facilitating Taiwan's participation," Kau said. "Were it not for China's opposition, Taiwan would have had more room for participation in the past."
"We hope the next director-general will continue to facilitate Taiwan's participation and follow Lee's footsteps in promoting the `no gap' policy," he said. "Any new director who opposes that will not be qualified."
Additional reporting by Chang Yun-ping