On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a health expert from Ethiopia, was elected as the new Director-General to lead the United Nations agency focused on international public health.
Tedros, who prefers to be called by his first name, will be taking over the position from Dr. Margaret Chan, who has been overseeing the agency since 2006. Tedros will serve a five-year term in the new position which will be beginning on July 1. He will be the first health official from Africa to serve as Director-General.
In a speech before the election—part of a weeklong meeting of health ministers from 194 nations in Geneva—Tedros talked about growing up in Ethiopia, saying he comes from a background of “knowing survival cannot be taken for granted, and refusing to accept that people should die because they are poor.”
Tedros also spoke about the need for universal access to health care, a better response to health emergencies and the need to tackle gender-based violence, as well as threats to global health like climate change, the migrant crisis and terrorism.
The two other candidates were Britain’s Dr. David Nabarro, a health official who has lead the United Nations response to a variety of health problems, including the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and Dr. Sania Nishtar, the first female cardiologist in Pakistan.
Tedros is a former health and foreign affairs minister from Ethiopia. As a foreign affairs minister Tedros focused on accelerating Africa’s economic, political and social development. According to his director-general application, as health minister, he oversaw the creation of 3,500 health centers and 16,000 health posts, which contributed to considerably cutting child mortality rates, HIV infections, malaria deaths and deaths from tuberculosis.
“I envision a world where everyone can lead healthy and productive lives, regardless of who they are or where they live,” Tedros wrote in his WHO application. “Achieving this will require a stronger and reformed WHO that belongs to all of us equally, and that is efficiently managed, adequately resourced and results-driven—with a strong focus on transparency, accountability and value for money.”
The WHO election comes at a difficult time in public and global health. The WHO’s reputation suffered due to its response to the Ebola outbreak that started in 2014. Critics argued the organization was too slow in responding to the outbreak, which infected more than 28,000 people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and killed more than 11,000. Just a couple years after the start of the epidemic, the Zika virus swept through South America and beyond, resulting in thousands of cases of the severe birth defect microcephaly among infants.