Press Release
15 May 1998


The Fifty-first session of the World Health Assembly, meeting in Geneva (11-16 May 1998) under the chairmanship of Dr Faisal Radhi Al-Mousawi (Bahrain), elected today Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway) to the post of Director-General of the World Health Organization for a five-year term starting on 21 July 1998. Dr Brundtland was nominated to the position by the 101rst Session of the WHO Executive Board in January 1998.

After congratulatory speeches delivered by the five Vice-presidents of the World Health Assembly representing five of the six WHO Regions, plus a representative of the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Dr Brundtland took the oath of office and addressed the Assembly.

She immediately affirmed her conviction that societies can be changed and that poverty can be fought. "The challenges go to all of us. WHO can and must change. It must become more effective, more accountable, more transparent and more receptive to a changing world", Dr Brundtland said. Referring to the complex processes of transition that WHO must cope with, the new Director-General said: "The transition from one century to another sees changes which will be faster and more dramatic from an economic, social and health perspective".

As regards the transition from the communicable diseases to the noncommunicable diseases, Dr Brundtland noted that: "They cannot be seen as competing tasks. They are complementary. We need to fight both. The burden of disease is the burden of unfulfilled human development".

As far as priorities are concerned, Dr Brundtland said: "I wish to organize our programmes and activities around key functions that tell a clear story of what business we are in. I wish to concentrate our resources in a way which enables us to do fully what we decide to do - and to let go what we decide not to do - either because others do it better or because we simply can't do all". Describing the reorganization which she intends to start implementing "from the very first day", Dr Brundtland said that she will focus on four areas of concern: "WHO will help monitor, roll back and where possible eradicate communicable diseases; WHO will help fight and reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases; WHO will help countries build sustainable health systems that can help reach equity targets and render quality services to all, with a particular emphasis on the situation of women and mothers who are so critical for giving children a safe and healthy start in life; WHO will speak out for health, back its case with solid evidence and thereby be a better advocate for health towards a broader audience of decision-makers."

Dr Brundtland also expressed the view that "there is a lot to gain from organizing part of our activities into projects". Not too many, but easy to define, easy to identify, open to our partners to cosponsor - and transparent for donors to lend their financial support to." Among the first priorities for such projects she proposed to "Roll Back Malaria, by developing a new health sector-wide approach to combat the disease at global, regional and country levels". "Why now?" she asked. "Because the call is there. We have enough knowledge, skills and tools to launch a new concerted effort. Africa is responding. African leaders are committing to a renewed effort to control malaria. Africa should be spearheading the project", Dr Brundtland answered.

"My second emphasis is in the field of non communicable diseases", said the new Director-General. "We need to address a major cause of premature death which is dramatically increasing - killing four million people this year - and - if we let it go on without action - 10 million people in the year 2030 - half of them dying in middle age - not old age. The major focus of the epidemic is now shifting to the developing countries. I refer to tobacco. I am a doctor. I believe in science and evidence. Let me state here today. Tobacco is a killer."

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman to become Director-General of WHO, concluded her speech by saying: "My motivation will be this: Making a difference - being able to make an effort - being one of many dedicated people working together for what we believe in. I envisage a world where solidarity binds the fortunate with those less favoured. Where our collective efforts will help roll back all the diseases of the poor. Where our collective efforts assure universal access to compassionate and competent health care. Bringing the world one step closer to that goal is our call for action."

For further information, journalists can contact Philippe Stroot, Coordinator Media Relations, Health Communications and Public Relations, WHO, Geneva. Telephone (41 22) 2535. Fax (41 22) 4858. e-mail:

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