World Health Organization Director General Dr. Lee Jong-wook has died after undergoing surgery over the weekend for a blood clot in his brain. He was 61 years old and leaves behind a wife and son.
Dr. Lee Jong-wook's death was announced just as the World Health Assembly began its annual conference. After a musical interlude, the director of the United Nations Office in Geneva read a message from the UN secretary-general in tribute to the man who would not be around to lead this week's important public health debate.
"The secretary-general has also asked me to convey to the World Health Assembly, to the World Health Organization and its staff his sincere condolences on this sudden and tragic loss of Director-General Dr. Lee. The secretary-general extends his most heartfelt condolences to Dr. Lee's family."
Dr. Lee had served only three years of his five-year term as WHO's director-general. He joined the WHO 23 years ago. He was educated in Korea and the University of Hawaii. His first experience in public health was in the treatment of leprosy in
the South Pacific.
He made his reputation as a campaigner in the treatment of tuberculosis and the use of vaccines to prevent the disease in children. In the early 1990's, Dr. Lee led the polio eradication initiative that wiped out this crippling disease in China. He moved to Geneva in 1994 to become director of WHO's global program for vaccines and immunization.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt remembers a trip he took with Dr. Lee last fall to six countries in Southeast Asia.
"During the course of our travels, Dr. Lee shared with me how he was as a young boy from the war-torn country Korea. He spoke with me of three difficult, arduous months where 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 he chose to devote himself to public service. He offered WHO visionary leadership."
Among his accomplishments as head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Lee began a program to ensure that three-million people with HIV/AIDS would have access to the medicines they needed by the end of 2005. While the world fell short of the target, he is widely credited with having shown that universal access to medicines was possible.
Dr. Lee's associates speak fondly of, what they call, Dr. Lee's self-deprecating wit. They say he had a quirky, unexpected humor that he often used to diffuse a difficult situation or just to make his friends laugh.