WHO Western Pacific chief vows to make bird flu priority if elected director-general

(Oct. 12) HANOI, Vietnam
He has battled SARS and bird flu in Asia and says the world would be in experienced hands during a flu pandemic if he became head of the World Health Organization.

Shigeru Omi of Japan, currently WHO's Western Pacific regional director, is among 13 candidates nominated by their countries to fill the top job after Director-General Lee Jong-wook died unexpectedly in May two years before his term was up.

A short list will be voted on next month in Geneva by the organization's executive board, and a final candidate will then be proposed to the World Health Assembly on Nov. 9.

The change comes at a time when the U.N. health agency is under increasing pressure to respond to global health threats and prepare the world for a possible pandemic that experts fear could spread rapidly around the world, killing millions and crippling economies.

"Pandemic preparedness is my first commitment," Omi told The Associated Press by phone from Sri Lanka, where he was campaigning this week. "The virus may change all of a sudden so that a human pandemic may happen. That's why we have to prepare ourselves for the worst-case scenario."

He said leaders and donors must not become fatigued with the message he's been preaching since the H5N1 bird flu virus began decimating poultry stocks across Asia in late 2003. Initially, many countries paid little attention to the threat, but after bird flu jumped from Asia to Europe and Africa, it became a top health priority.

The virus, which has killed at least 148 people globally, remains hard for people to catch but scientists fear it will mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans. So far, most cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.

Omi said he would push donors to fulfill pledges totaling US$1.9 billion (€1.5 billion) made in January to tackle bird flu and prepare for a possible pandemic. Last month, acting WHO chief Anders Nordstrom said the organization is still lacking about half the funds it needs to help countries in that fight.

Omi, 57, of Japan, who has worked at WHO for 16 years, says his experience in building consensus among countries and pushing WHO to work more closely with other key agencies, such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, makes him the best choice for the job. He has served as regional director since 1999 and was challenged in 2003 when SARS emerged in Asia and spread rapidly across the world, killing nearly 800 people and infecting more than 8,000 before it was stopped.

"The director-general of the World Health Organization, at this point, should go to somebody whose leadership has been tested and proven and whose track record speaks for itself," he said. Member states "feel very comfortable and they think that I can help this international community to go through a very, very difficult period."

Working to increase AIDS prevention and treatment and eradicating polio also are among Omi's top goals. He said using celebrities to increase public awareness and build momentum for fighting disease in poverty-stricken countries would be part of his strategy.

Omi also wants countries to set up national plans to fight chronic killers such as diabetes and heart disease, and to help slim down nations facing obesity epidemics.

The other candidates are Margaret Chan, Hong Kong's former health director and a WHO point person on bird flu; Ecuador's outgoing president, Alfredo Palacio Gonzalez; French politician Bernard Kouchner; Kazem Behbehani, a senior WHO official from Kuwait; Julio Frenk, Mexico's health minister; David A. Gunnarsson, Iceland's health minister; Nay Htun, a former high-ranking U.N. development and environment official from Myanmar; Karam Karam, former Lebanese health minister; Elena Salgado Mendez, Spain's health minister; Manuel Mocumbi, former prime minister of Mozambique; Pekka Puska, head of Finland's national health institute; and Tomris Turmen, a Turkish woman who heads WHO's family health division. (from AP)


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