Tribute to Dr LEE Jong-wook
Ms Jane Halton
President of the 60th World Health Assembly
Director General, Mrs Lee, honourable ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, Dr Mahler
It is a day to reflect on Dr Lee as a health professional, as a global health leader, and as a family man and a friend
Dr Lee has a special place in the heart of many of us gathered here today.
First and foremost, he was a dedicated and passionate health professional. He devoted his entire career to improving people’s health, most of this time working for the World Health Organization. He worked tirelessly at the country, then regional, and then finally international level to address some of the toughest health challenges.
Australia, as a member of the Western Pacific Region, has a particular appreciation for the work of Dr Lee. His role in polio eradication in our region was significant. As head of the polio eradication initiative from 1990 to 1994, Dr Lee oversaw a reduction in reported polio cases from nearly 6000 to 700 in the region. The WPRO region is now polio free.
Dr Lee also made a major contribution to leprosy control and chronic disease management during his time in the Western Pacific.
Dr Lee is also remembered for his innovative work on tuberculosis –which saw the establishment of the Global Partnership to Stop TB. Dr Lee was perhaps ahead of his time in recognizing and harnessing the benefits that come from strong and innovative partnerships between the WHO and other key global players.
His launching of the Global Drug Facility to increase access to TB drugs not only increased access to those drugs but has provided a model for increasing access to drugs for other diseases.
Dr Lee’s election as WHO Director General in 2003 occurred at a time of significant change and rising priority of health and development issues on the international stage. The issue of global health security was also gaining a new prominence.
He saw the need for WHO to respond to these changes and to seize the opportunities of greater international attention on health issues. His 3 by 5 initiative is a case in point. The WHO’s response to the emergence of avian and pandemic influenza is another.
Dr Lee took his global health leadership role very seriously and the finalization of a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the revised International Health Regulations are two of his greatest legacies. He also raised the international profile and the need for global action on non communicable diseases and the shortage of health workers.
In my role as Chair of the WHO’s Programme, Budget and Administration Committee for the past 2 years, I have seen the benefits flowing from Dr Lee’s commitment to financial and management reform in the WHO.
The improvements in programme and budget planning and management as well as the improvements in transparency and accountability that have occurred at the WHO in previous years are in large part due to the changes initiated by Dr Lee. His commitment to organizational reform has resulted in WHO now being a leader amongst UN agencies in many areas.
Now, of course, many of us here today probably have a memory of Dr Lee striding through the ground floor of WHO Headquarters with a spring in his step and a definite sense of purpose.
He certainly did give 100% to everything he did – as his son so eloquently stated this time last year. And while he worked tirelessly for the organization, Dr Lee also had time to keep fit and abide by all those important messages from the WHO on a healthy diet and physical activity. His passion for walking and skiing and cycling are well known.
Dr Lee also had quite a reputation on the tennis court – and I am sure that our colleague and my fellow Australian, Dr Bill Kean, would have had the sporting challenge of his life as Dr Lee’s doubles partner during their time in Manila.
In addition to finding time for his sport and his family, Dr Lee also had time to make us all feel that we were part of his larger WHO family. It was not unusual for Dr Lee to just drop by the WHO restaurant at lunch time during an Executive Board meeting and join the Australian or some other countries delegation for a relaxed lunch and a chat. His informality and genuine interest in the work and lives of others put people at ease.
Dr Lee would be honoured that we are all gathered here today in his memory. But, given his self effacing nature and total dedication to improving global health, he would perhaps be a little perplexed that we had taken a break from our Assembly discussions to pay our respects to his memory.
I am sure however, that Dr Lee would be pleased to know that we have discussed resolutions on issues dear to his heart like polio eradication, tuberculosis and better medicines for children, and that we have agreed to a strategic plan of action to guide, for the next 6 years, the organization he loved so much.
Our thoughts this morning should not only be on the life of Dr Lee but also on the many things we all still need to do to meet the global health challenges he worked so hard to achieve.