A tribute to Dr LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO

22 May 2006

Dr Lee
WHO/Jean-Marc Ferre
Dr LEE Jong-wook

Dr LEE Jong-wook, Director-General of the World Health Organization, died this morning following a short illness.

Dr Lee, a national of the Republic of Korea, was a world leader in public health. He tackled every challenge with passion, dedication and professionalism. He was unfalteringly committed to WHO's mission, to help all people to attain "the highest possible level of health."

Throughout his 23-year career at WHO, he made a difference in every programme he managed - whether by leading the charge to eradicate polio from the Western Pacific, or to launch a cutting edge Global Drug Facility so people would have access to tuberculosis medicines.

The world has lost a great man today
-- Kofi Annan,
UN Secretary-General

" The world has lost a great man today. LEE Jong-wook was a man of conviction and passion. He was a strong voice for the right of every man, woman and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people," said United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "He tackled the most difficult problems head on, while upholding the highest principles. He will be very gravely missed, but history will mark LEE Jong-wook's many contributions to public health."

While personally a modest man, Dr LEE was a bold leader. When he became Director-General, he took a risk and announced that WHO would work with partners to achieve "3 by 5" - to ensure three million people with HIV/AIDS would have access to the medicines they needed by the end of 2005. "3 by 5" transformed the way leaders thought about AIDS medicines for people in poor countries. While the world fell short of the target, the successes and momentum of "3 by 5" demonstrated that universal access to medicines was possible - and had become a moral imperative.

A few days before his death, Dr Lee explained his vision of "universal access" to staff in his office as he worked on his speech to the World Health Assembly.

Dr Lee being greeted by children in KwaMlanga, South Africa
Dr Lee on one of his first country visits as Director-General, being warmly greeted by children outside the community health clinic in KwaMlanga, South Africa.

He said: " There can be no 'comfort level' in the fight against HIV. We must keep up the pressure to get prevention, treatment and care linked and working. A key outcome of "3 by 5" was the commitment to universal access to treatment by 2010. But what does universal access mean? To me, this means that no one should die because they can't get drugs. It means that no one will miss being tested, diagnosed, treated and cared for because there aren't clinics."

As Director-General, he led global efforts to tackle avian influenza and to prepare for a human influenza pandemic. Pointing to the health, social and economic devastation of historical influenza pandemics, he stressed repeatedly that every head of state should ensure their country developed a national pandemic preparation plan. He personally met with many heads of state, including US President George Bush, President Jacques Chirac, of France, and President Hu Jintao of China.

He listened very well. He talked to the top decision-makers, but sought out everyday people to ask about their lives, as he traveled the world. In his quiet way, he would find a farmer, or a market stall holder, a nurse, or a schoolchild and learn about them. Their personal stories with their photographs were often the anchor for his public statements on global health policy.

Underscoring the recognition of his role, Dr LEE was invited by President Vladimir Putin to speak at the G8 Summit this July in St. Petersburg, where the fight against infectious disease is one of three major items on the agenda.

Dr Lee visiting a hospital in Pakistan following the earthquake
WHO/Chris Black
In December 2005, Dr Lee travelled to the areas hit by the south Asia earthquake in Pakistan.

He took the fight against infectious diseases, and particularly the threat of pandemic influenza to a new level. He had a simple message: 'Prepare for a pandemic now, before it is too late." World leaders took it to heart and acted. Because of his conviction, the world is now better prepared for pandemic influenza than it has ever has been in history.

In his very first speech to WHO staff as Director-General, Dr Lee vowed that WHO would do the right things, in the right places. To him, the right places were the countries that most needed WHO's support. In his nearly three years as Director-General, Dr LEE traveled to more than 60 countries, to visit health programmes and the people they affected, and to meet with the most senior leaders. He swiftly traveled to places where his leadership was urgently needed - to immediately assess the health needs following the Indian Ocean tsunami, the south Asian earthquake and in the Darfur region of Sudan, for example.

He considered WHO's job as one of huge responsibility to its 192 Member States, and the health needs of their people. He reformed WHO to help ensure it could meet those needs more effectively, with a strong focus on recruiting and retaining people with the right skills. He insisted on a rigorous financial strategy which reduced spending at Headquarters, and gave more to the countries where funding is most needed. This required tough decisions, but he did not hesitate to make them.

Dr Lee next to WHO emblem
WHO/Chris Black
Dr Lee worked for 23 years at WHO, and was the first person from the Republic of Korea to lead a UN agency.

He preferred to lead by example, rather than instruction. He led a healthy life, and embraced life in Switzerland to its fullest. He loved skiing, mountain biking, and walking. He would pause at the office window and invite others to stand with him, reflecting on the beauty of the lakes, mountains and hills around him. During lunch hours at WHO, he would often take walks through the gardens, or a bike ride along the paths. He took great pleasure in sharing good food and wine. He also set an example across the United Nations, with strict rules against tobacco use, and the conversion of the fleet of WHO cars to small, environmentally-friendly fuel/electric vehicles.

Dr Lee had very wide-ranging intellectual interests, with a great appetite for knowledge and a hugely retentive memory. He often surprised people with his precise recall of a book or play that he was reading, or had read many years ago, and its application to a current situation. In spare moments he enjoyed classical music, the theatre, reading Shakespeare and other great literature. His mother tongue was Korean but spoke fluent English. He also spoke French and Japanese.

He will be very fondly remembered for his self-deprecating wit. He often used his quirky, unexpected humour either to put people at ease, to diffuse a difficult situation, or just to make his friends laugh with his astute observations.

Dr Lee was the first UN agency head from the Republic of Korea. He began his five-year term as Director-General of WHO on 21 July, 2003.

He was 61 years old. He is survived by his wife and son, two brothers and one sister and their families.

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