Sun, Aug 06, 2006 - Page 4 News List

PRC backs woman for WHO chief


Her quick smile and perky manner make Margaret Chan (陳馮富珍) seem more like a nurse on a children's ward than a candidate to be one of the world's most important health officials.

But the Hong Kong physician has fought some major medical battles in the past three decades, and she's now a serious candidate to become the next boss of WHO.

She has a good shot at winning because her candidacy is being sponsored by China. It's the first time China has nominated anyone for a top UN job, indicating the massive nation's interest in playing a bigger role in global affairs.

But questions are already being raised about whether Chan would be able to stand up to her patrons in Beijing if the government again fails to cooperate in fighting a disease outbreak.

Beijing was widely accused of trying to conceal SARS in 2003, helping the often deadly virus to spread worldwide.

"If Dr Chan cannot stand firm, because she's a Chinese national, she may not have the guts enough to react to the Beijing government. If a similar SARS incident happens in the future, the whole world would be in a crisis,'' said Andrew Cheng (鄭家富), a lawmaker who was part of a special committee that reviewed the Hong Kong government's handling of SARS.

Chan recently told journalists that she wouldn't be soft on China.

"If elected, I'm not serving Hong Kong's interests. I'm not serving China's interests. I'm serving the world's interests. That's a very important message to get clear," she said.

Chan insisted that China has learned from SARS, and commended its openness in combatting bird flu. She said lapses in reporting bird flu cases mostly happened at the village level, where people have struggled to confirm infections.

"China is prepared to act and play its role as a major country," she said. "And one of the reasons for nominating me as a candidate for the post is because they would like to make a greater contribution to global public health."

But Thomas Abraham, author of Twenty-first Century Plague: The Story of SARS, said China still lacks transparency.

"It's not an open system yet, and I think they have a long way to go. Information about disease is still something that you can only publish if it's officially announced," said Abraham, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong.

So far, Chan's main rival in the race for the WHO's director is Japan's Shigeru Omi, the WHO's director for the Western Pacific.

Chan, who earned her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada, joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978 and has spent most of her career in administration.

Perhaps her biggest strong point is that she's one of the few health officials in the world with experience fighting two outbreaks of new and deadly diseases: bird flu in 1997 and SARS in 2003. Most recently, she was WHO's point person for bird flu as an assistant director-general for the WHO.

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