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World Health Assembly opens, mourns death of WHO Director-General

The Fifty-ninth World Health Assembly (WHA) opened today in sombre mood following the death early on Monday morning of the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr LEE Jong-wook. Dr Lee, who was 61 and had been in his post since July 2003, died following a sudden illness.

Opening the formal proceedings of the Assembly, the Minister of Health of Spain, Elena Salgado, said Dr Lee "was an exceptional person and an exceptional Director-General." The Assembly observed a two-minute silence and was suspended for 30 minutes following the announcement of Dr Lee's death.

Excerpts from a speech prepared by the Director-General were read out to the Assembly by Dr Bill Kean, Executive Director of the Director-General's Office. In the speech, Dr Lee set out his commitment to tackle difficult problems and change expectations. "What matters in reform is not words but action," he said. "I hope that the actions of this Organization speak for themselves."

Speaking of the importance of resources - both human and financial - in the fight to improve global health, he stressed that "if a problem can be solved by money alone, it is not really a difficult problem."

Dr Lee wrote that a key outcome of the "3 by 5" initiative he championed was the international commitment to universal access.

"Universal access," he wrote, "means that no one should die because they can't get drugs. It means that no one will miss being tested, diagnosed and treated because there aren't clinics. It means that HIV positive mothers will not unwittingly give a death sentence to their babies. Their parents will live to look after them instead of making them AIDS orphans."

After the the Director-General's speech, the Assembly was introduced to a passionate young HIV/AIDS activist from Kenya, Johnson Mwakazi. Dr Lee wrote, "This is a voice that must be heard. He speaks for the 40 million people living with HIV, those living in the shadow of stigma."

Johnson Mwakazi spoke of his experience through a poem, "Underneath the Veil":
"This one thing has destroyed families,
This one thing has destroyed marriages,
This one thing has killed men.
It is not HIV
It is not AIDS
… It is stigmatisation.

Dr Lee's speech urged countries to redouble their efforts in the fight to eradicate polio. "The world has invested US$4 billion so far in polio eradication," he wrote. "I appeal to you all to continue your support - both political and financial - until the job is finished."

"Some have questioned whether polio eradication is possible. Let there be no doubt. We can do it. And we will."

He also wrote, "Clearly things are not going well with malaria control … We accept our responsibility for this. Now is not the time for shyness. WHO will exercise much greater leadership in malaria control."

For more information contact:

Christine McNab
Communications Officer
Director-General's office
Telephone: +41 79 254 6815

Iain Simpson
Communications Officer
Director-General's office
Telephone: +41 79 475 5534