Cholera risks Addis bid for top WHO job

Candidates for top World Health Organisation post. From left: Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom, Pakistani Sania Nishtar and Briton David Nabarro. PHOTO | AFP
Candidates for top World Health Organisation post. From left: Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom, Pakistani Sania Nishtar and Briton David Nabarro. PHOTO | AFP 

A group of African diplomats have defended their candidate for the United Nations’ top health post against charges that he covered up cholera outbreaks in Ethiopia.

The allegations directed at Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s former Health minister, were carried in a May 13 New York Times story.

It cited claims that the ministry under the direction of Dr Tedros had misreported outbreaks of cholera as incidences of “acute watery diarrhoea” (AWD).

More than 16,000 cases of what Ethiopia calls AWD have been diagnosed in the country’s Somali region this year.

A major cholera epidemic is currently underway in neighbouring Somalia, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN agency that Dr Tedros is seeking to lead.

Ethiopia is the only country in the Horn not to have experienced an officially acknowledged cholera outbreak in the past 10 years.

Failure to identify cholera cases can slow international assistance in fighting the often-deadly disease, health officials say.

The African Union’s envoy to the UN’s Geneva headquarters was joined by seven other African diplomats at the Wednesday Press conference called in support of Dr Tedros’ qualifications for the WHO post, which will be decided in a vote next week by member-states.

Ethiopian Ambassador Negash Kebret Botora characterised the Times article as part of a “smear campaign” that reflected “a kind of colonial mentality” on the part of Dr Tedros’ detractors.

The African envoys noted that Dr Tedros would be the first African to lead WHO. They said he had demonstrated high competency as Ethiopia’s Health minister from 2005 to 2012.

Two other candidates are vying for the WHO post: Dr David Nabarro, a British physician who served as the UN special envoy on the Ebola outbreak, and Pakistani cardiologist and former Health minister Dr Sania Nishtar.

Lawrence Gostin, head of a health institute at a US university and an advisor to Dr Nabarro, told the Times that he feared WHO “might lose its legitimacy” if led by “a representative of a country that itself covers up epidemics.”

“Dr Tedros is a compassionate and highly competent public health official,” Prof Gostin added.

“But he had a duty to speak truth and to honestly identify and report verified cholera outbreaks over an extended period.”


Critics say WHO has a cumbersome bureaucracy that causes it to lag in its responses to global health problems. The agency is in need of reforms, many public health specialists suggest.

Dr Tedros is the right choice to lead WHO, a former director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention asserted in a letter commenting on the Times’ story.

“Although not optimal, many countries report cholera to the World Health Organisation as acute watery diarrhoea, as Ethiopia has,” wrote Dr Thomas Frieden.