Go back

Expectations soar as WHO elects first African head

The World Health Organisation has finally picked an African to lead it, and researchers from the continent have high hopes for the new incumbent.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s former health minister, was elected as the new WHO director-general in Geneva, Switzerland, on 23 May.

Tedros—who goes by his first name—received twice as many votes as the losing candidate in the final round of voting, the United Kingdom’s David Nabarro.

Salim Abdool Karim, head of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, says Tedros takes the WHO reigns at a stage where it must re-establish itself as a leading voice in global health policy, especially regarding epidemics.

“Many of our research colleagues in Africa are standing ready to assist the WHO’s new leadership to make a real difference to improving health in Africa, the developing world, and beyond,” he says.

Evelyn Gitau, Kenya-based manager of the Grand Challenges Africa programme, says Tedros’ promise to focus on universal health, emergencies, women and children, climate change and transforming the WHO bodes well for Africa.

“[His election] depicts a shift in global leadership that can only accelerate Africa’s rise to the top as it tackles its many challenges,” she says.

Nina Dudnik, the founder and CEO of the Seeding Labs initiative, a company that sources research equipment for developing country researchers, agrees that the appointment is critical for African researchers to advance their own agenda. She says Tedros’ ground-level research experience on the continent would make him more amenable to African priorities.

But while Bonfoh Bassirou from the Cote d’Ivoire-based Swiss Centre for Scientific Research says that while Tedros’ appointment is undoubtedly good news for Africa, it does not mean he will discriminate against the rest of the world.

Bassirou wants the Ethiopian to focus on education and poverty alleviation, involve scientists and civil society in decision-making, stimulate research funding from African sources, boost ethics and transparency and not neglect communicable diseases.

Reaction to Tedros’ appointment has not been universally positive, however. Concerns have been raised about human rights abuses by the Ethiopian government at the time when he served in prominent cabinet positions.

Shortly before the vote Lawrence Gostin, a Nabarro adviser, accused Tedros of covering up numerous cholera epidemics in Ethiopia while he was health minister. Supporters of Tedros have denounced the accusations as a “smear campaign”.

Tedros will take up the post on 1 July.