May 23, 2017 / 3:11 PM / 2 months ago

WHO votes for a new leader of global health

GENEVA, May 23 (Reuters) - World Health Organization member states began voting on Tuesday for the next director-general, with an Ethiopian candidate vying to be the first African to head the United Nations agency.

The three candidates made their final pitches to run the WHO which is tasked with combating outbreaks and chronic diseases.

Margaret Chan, a former Hong Kong health director who has led the WHO for 10 years, steps down on June 30 leaving a mixed legacy after WHO's slow response to West Africa's Ebola epidemic in 2013-2016 which killed 11,300 people.

Health ministers from 186 states have a choice of three nominees to replace Chan as director-general - Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, David Nabarro of Britain and Sania Nishtar of Pakistan. The voting may continue for several rounds, with a winner expected late on Tuesday.

The first to address the World Health Assembly was the former Ethiopian foreign minister and health minister universally known as Dr Tedros, who appealed to ministers by promising to represent their interests and to ensure more countries got top jobs at the Geneva-based WHO.

“I will listen to you. I was one of you. I was in your shoes and I can understand you better,” Tedros told the ministers. “I know what it takes to strengthen the frontlines of healthcare and innovate around the constraints.”

Tedros, widely seen as having an in-built advantage because he can call on about 50 African votes, would be the first African head of the WHO.

Voting, however, is secret and questions about Tedros' role in restricting human rights in Ethiopia may have tarnished his appeal.

Nabarro, a WHO insider who has worked for 40 years in international public health, dexcribed himself as a "global candidate".

"Some of you told me that at times you have felt let down by the WHO, you want it to be more relevant, responsive and reliable. Under my leadership it will be," he said.

Nishtar, a cardiologist, civil society activist and former minister, presented herself as able to deal with all stakeholders at a time when WHO was at a "crossroads".

"My hands are clean coming out of this election and I have the ability to accelerate reforms you have championed," she said. "This will be your historic vote to put health above politics." (Editing by Ed Osmond)

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