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WHO chief Chan geared up for flu battle

2009-06-11 2
   
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résuméGENEVA Dr Margaret Chan, who on Thursday declared that an influenza pandemic is sweeping the globe, is well prepared to confront the challenge after years of fighting bird flu and SARS in her native Hong Kong. When bird flu first jumped to humans in
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WHO chief Chan geared up for flu battle


GENEVA Dr Margaret Chan, who on Thursday declared that an influenza pandemic is sweeping the globe, is well prepared to confront the challenge after years of fighting bird flu and SARS in her native Hong Kong.

When bird flu first jumped to humans in 1997, Chan -- then serving as the island's health director -- issued orders within days to slaughter the entire poultry population of 1.5 million birds.

In her nine years in that job, she also had to deal with an Asian epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Along with other top Hong Kong officials, she defended herself under fire in a legislative inquiry on the handling of the new disease that killed nearly 300 people there.

Now 61, the first Chinese national to head a major United Nations agency, she is leading the charge against the new H1N1 virus, widely known as swine flu, at the World Health Organization (WHO).

"She has the courage to make decisions and make the right decisions based on the scientific evidence," David Heymann, a former WHO assistant director-general, told Reuters.

Heymann, an American who chairs Britain's Health Protection Agency, said on Thursday: "Countries like the U.K. have greatly appreciated how much attention she has given this... She has been very accessible and transparent to countries, vaccine manufacturers, and those who need information."

The infectious disease specialist began her career as a teacher before obtaining her medical degree in Canada and starting a public health career spanning three decades.

She joined the WHO in 2003, rose to head its pandemic flu program, and formally took the helm in January 2007 after the sudden death of Lee Jong-wook.

"WAR ROOM"

Chan has frequently warned that viruses similar to bird flu and SARS could sweep the world and cause a deadly pandemic.

Upon her election as WHO director-general, the top job in international public health, she said: "Infectious diseases have staged a dramatic comeback. HIV, Ebola, SARS and avian influenza will not be the last bad surprises delivered by the ever-changing microbial world."

More recently, in a speech to the WHO's annual assembly of ministers, she said of H1N1: "This is a subtle, sneaky virus."

As the disease was first beginning to be detected in Mexico and the United States in April, Chan kicked the WHO "war room" into high gear.

"Dr Chan is running the show. She is holding morning and evening briefings. She is very much driving the process," Mike Ryan, WHO director of global alert and response, told Reuters at the time.

The WHO's Strategic Health Operations Center, a nerve center for tracking epidemics, is nicknamed the "SHOC room" or "war room." It is staffed round-the-clock by experts trying to coordinate the world's defenses against the new virus.

"We have to keep the world informed through the director-general. She has to know the situation, what her options are and has to be able to communicate clearly," he said.

(Editing by Charles Dick)

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