A former Ethiopian health minister, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 52, was elected to take over an agency that has recently struggled to find funding and simultaneously exert political leadership to care for the health of 7 billion people.
After two rounds of secret ballot voting, delegates chose Ghebreyesus—over Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist from Pakistan, and David Nabarro, a physician and WHO veteran from Britain who led the UN's response to the West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014—as their new leader.
Nishtar had the least amount of management experience or any outbreaks. She served briefly as a health minister and worked on non-communicable diseases only for years as head of a nongovernmental organisation.
Nabarro on the other hand, has had years of experience dealing with outbreaks and crises for the United Nations; but critics say as a WHO veteran, he would have difficulty introducing the radical change needed to overhaul the agency.
Tedros accused to cover up outbreaks of cholera in Ethiopia
Tedros, who goes by his first name (pronounced TAY-dros), campaigned as "Dr. Tedros" despite not being a medical doctor—but holds a Ph.D in community health.
All three candidates have been campaigning for the post for the past year-and-a half. All have promised to reform the bureaucratic WHO, champion universal health care and prepare the world for the next global pandemic.
Though in recent weeks, the race turned bitter when an adviser to Dr Nabarro accused Dr Tedros of having covered up repeated outbreaks of cholera in Ethiopia, which may have delayed the international response and, more recently, the use of a cholera vaccine there.
Dr Tedros is also tied with a political party with a dismal human rights record, which included massacring protesters and jailing and torturing journalists and political opponents.
Elected based on experiences with expansion of basic health services
The accusations clearly did not dampen his spirit in pitch his final pitch—i.e. he emphasised his experience as Ethiopia's health minister, where he oversaw the expansion of basic health services across the country – a model of basic, but universal healthcare in the East African region that has since garnered much praises.
"In six years we built more than 16,000 health posts, 3,000 health centres, deployed more than 40,000 health extension workers," he said. "It was a massive effort delivering massive results."
“But, there is a real value in electing a leader who has worked in one of the toughest health environments and transformed the health system. I bring a fresh perspective, an angle with which the world has never seen before,” he added.
Tedros' campaign promised the pursuit of health insurance in even the poorest nations, strengthen emergency responses and make the agency more accountable and transparent.
Backing the need for greater access to birth control and preventive care for women, as well as committing to having more gender and ethnic diversity in the agency—he also promised to fight the health effects of climate change.
Tedros hoped to overhaul political issues in the agency
The election comes at a critical time for the WHO, which has experienced huge budget cuts over the years, lost talented staff members and was heavily criticised for its sluggish and ineffective response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in three West African countries that killed more than 11,000 people.
However, public health experts say one of the biggest challenges facing the WHO is getting rid of the deeply entrenched politics that affected the selection, promotion and support of its staff—one of the main reasons why the health agency's initial response to the Ebola outbreak was not effective.
Therefore, several global health organisations welcomed Tedros' instalment.
The new WHO chief “has the power to herald a new era in how the world prepares for and responds to epidemics; including building partnerships, strengthening public health systems, and developing new vaccines and therapies that are available to all who need them," said Jeremy Farrar who heads the Wellcome Trust, a London-based global biomedical research charity, which did not endorse a candidate.
Steve Davis, the chief executive of PATH, a Seattle-based international health technology nonprofit hopes that the new leader will increase global access to lifesaving medicines and technologies and continue the success towards ending HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, polio, and preventable maternal and child deaths. MIMS
Did the WHO mistakenly leave out TB from the priority list?
WHO launches global initiative to halve medication errors by 2022
Global Health 101: How education can nurture pragmatic and creative doctors