By SAM CAGE, The Associated Press
fell ill Saturday while attending a function in
and underwent surgery later that day, the agency said.
will take over as WHO's acting director-general.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Lee "a valuable leader to WHO staff the
sudden loss of a leader, colleague and friend is truly devastating," he
took over as director-general of WHO in 2003 as the agency battled the SARS
. After that threat was contained, WHO turned its attention to bird flu amid
fears the virus could mutate into a strain easily transmitted among people.
agency oversaw a number of preparatory meetings as experts developed their plans
to tackle the H5N1 strain. WHO also built up a reserve of antiviral medicine and
encouraged vaccine research. At a global donors' meeting in
in January, 1.9 billion was pledged to the fight against bird flu and to
prepare for a potential pandemic.
worked for WHO for 23 years, including time served in regional posts. He was the
first South Korean to head a U.N. agency, after winning praise for his low-key
but efficient management style as head of the agency's tuberculosis program.
magazine named Lee one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2004.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, who traveled with Lee last
year to southeast Asia to learn about a possible pandemic, paid tribute to his
the course of our travels, Dr. Lee shared with me how he was as a young boy from
the war-torn country of
," Leavitt said.
spoke with me of three difficult and arduous months when he and his mother
walked mile after mile after mile in search of his father, who was during that
cold winter in exile. Dr. Lee experienced hardship at a very early age, and my
sense is it was the reason that he chose to devote himself to public
service," he added.
"was an exceptional person and an exceptional director general," said
Elena Salgado, Spain's health minister and president of the World Health
Assembly, at the opening of the annual meeting of the 192 members of WHO. Flags
flew at half-staff on the U.N. building, where the meeting was taking place.
initially said he wanted to improve international monitoring to help tackle
outbreaks of diseases like SARS and that his mandate would be defined by the
fight against HIV/AIDS, particularly in hardest-hit poorer countries.
his time in office came to be dominated by the spread of bird flu through Asia,
and its potential for causing a human flu pandemic.
know another pandemic is inevitable," Lee told a 2004 meeting of experts.
"And when this happens, we also know that we are unlikely to have enough
drugs, vaccines, health care workers and hospital capacity to cope in an ideal
way. So we must act wisely."
was elected by WHO's executive committee in 2003 to replace Gro Harlem
Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister who stepped down after
transforming WHO from a disillusioned and badly managed organization to a
high-profile agency that has put health firmly on the global political agenda.
a tuberculosis expert, had previously run WHO's Stop TB program.
was the only WHO insider in the race for the top job in 2003 and the only
candidate never to have held a ministerial or top U.N. post.
initially regarded as a political lightweight, he showed his acumen by
persuading 53 members of the U.S. Congress to write to then-Secretary of State
Colin Powell and Tommy Thompson, the health secretary, backing his candidacy.
is survived by his wife and son.
Associated Press writers Margie Mason in
, and Alexander G. Higgins in
contributed to this report.