The Chinese physician poised to succeed the late Dr. Lee Jong-wook as head of the UN health agency rose to international prominence in 1997, when she directed Hong Kong's battle against the world's first human outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus.
Margaret Chan's (
As Hong Kong's director of public health Chan ordered the slaughter of Hong Kong's entire poultry population -- about 1.5 million birds in just three days -- and her action is credited with possibly averting a human flu pandemic.
The bird flu outbreak followed shortly after Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China in July 1997, amid worries over the city's future under communist rule, and put Hong Kong's top officials, including Chan, in the global spotlight.
In 2003, Hong Kong was one of the epicenters of the global outbreak of SARS, which infected 1,755 people and killed 299.
While a Hong Kong legislative report accused Chan and other officials of paying insufficient attention when SARS emerged in neighboring Guangdong Province, her defenders noted that lack of information from Beijing meant the Asian metropolis was caught off guard.
Chan, who received international praise for her role in containing the outbreak, said at the time she hoped the Hong Kong public would be "pragmatic" in judging her performance.
When Lee brought Chan to Geneva in the summer of 2003, she was made head of WHO's protection of the human environment team.
Last year, she was promoted to director of communicable diseases, as well as being Lee's representative for pandemic flu. Her main task was to assist countries in responding to infectious disease threats and coordinate the international response to bird flu.
Health leaders have repeatedly warned that a pandemic sparked by the H5N1 strain of bird flu could prove devastating if countries are not adequately prepared.
Backed by China for the job of WHO director-general, a position some regard as the second most im-portant within the UN system, Chan could be in a strong position to push China for greater openness in sharing information on its bird flu cases with the global health community.
"I think she's a perfect person to try to sort that out," Jeff Koplan, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said.
He said Chan's experience of being in the firing line for responding too slowly to an outbreak meant she recognized the value of fast communication.
"She's certainly not going to sit there and say we don't need this information. She knows it's needed and she knows what happens if you don't get it," Koplan said.
The Hong Kong-born Chan, 59, received her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978. She also studied at Harvard Business School.
She was appointed deputy director of Hong Kong's department of health in 1992, then director in 1994.