May 23, 2017 / 3:12 PM / 6 months ago

Ethiopia's Tedros wins WHO race, first African to get top job

GENEVA (Reuters) - Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus won the race to be the next head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday, becoming the first African to lead the Geneva-based United Nations agency.

REFILE - CORRECTING TYPO Newly elected Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

The former health minister and foreign minister, who vowed to make universal health care his priority, won over half the votes from 189 member states in the first round and prevailed in a third-round ballot against Britain’s David Nabarro.

“It’s a victory day for Ethiopia and for Africa,” Ethiopia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva Negash Kebret Botora said.

Tedros, as he is widely known, told health ministers at the WHO’s annual assembly after his election: ”All roads lead to universal coverage. This will be my central priority.

“At present, only about a half of the world’s people have access to health care without impoverishment. This needs to improve dramatically,” he added.

Six candidates sought to take the helm at the WHO, which is tasked with combating disease outbreaks and chronic illnesses.

The WHO said Tedros had led a “comprehensive reform effort” of Ethiopia’s health system, creating health centres and jobs.

FILE PHOTO: Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, candidate for Director General of the World Health Organisation, attends a news conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, January 26, 2017. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

UNAIDS, the vaccine alliance GAVI, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers welcomed his appointment.

“Tedros has the power to herald a new era in how the world prepares for and responds to epidemics, including building partnerships, strengthening public health systems, and developing new vaccines and therapies that are available to all who need them,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the medical charity Wellcome Trust, said in a statement.

Tedros will begin his five-year term after Margaret Chan, a former Hong Kong health director, steps down on June 30.

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Chan leaves a mixed legacy after her 10 years on the job, especially because of WHO’s slow response to West Africa’s Ebola epidemic in 2013-2016, which killed 11,300 people.

In a last pitch before voting began, Tedros 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,” he said.

Tedros was widely seen as having the support of about 50 African votes, but questions about his role in restricting human rights and Ethiopia’s cover-up of a cholera outbreak surfaced late in the race, threatening to tarnish his appeal.

“You now have a clear mandate. We welcome your promises on transparency, delivery and reform,” said Sally Davies, Britain’s medical chief officer.

Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Ed Osmond and Hugh Lawson; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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