1,000 mourners flock to funeral of UN health agency head

More than 1,000 people packed into the Geneva’s Basilique Notre-Dame for the funeral of Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), paying tribute to a man praised for his passion for his work and his kindness to his fellow human beings.

“One of the last things he did was, on Friday night, to rush out and buy a take-away Chinese meal for two staff who were working late,” the head of Dr. Lee’s office, Bill Kean, told the mourners at yesterday’s ceremony.

Dr. Lee, who died on Monday after suffering a stroke on Saturday, was a “man of action,” whose adventurous spirit led him to “experience more, see more, and do more,” his son, Tadahiro, said. “This spirit made him great at work, and great at life.”

Tadahiro said his father gave 100 per cent of his attention to each one of the people he cared about, and to the issues he was passionate about.

Dr. Lee became WHO chief in July 2003. Before that, he had worked for more than 20 years for the agency, first battling leprosy in the South Pacific islands, then tackling vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio.

“Dr Lee’s work defined and exemplified the very best of WHO,” his compatriot Rhyu Si-min, Health and Welfare Minister of the Republic of Korea, said on behalf of the international health community.

“He wanted change to take place on the ground. He travelled great distances, to more than 60 countries in three years. And he would never hesitate to travel the distance across the floor to take the hand of a child who was sick. His work has touched millions, and has made their lives better.”

Staff remembered Dr. Lee for his direct interest in their work. It was common for him to drop by someone’s office to find out what they were doing, or to call WHO representatives in country offices and ask them how things were going. “He was never off duty. His agile mind was constantly turning over situations, plans and ideas. He never stopped thinking,” Dr. Kean said.

Deputy UN Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown represented Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Other UN Agency heads present included Ann Veneman, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF0, Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and Juan Somavia, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

His widow has requested that in lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Dr. Lee should be given to the project where she works, Socios En Salud in Lima, Peru. Donations can be given via the sister organization of Socios En Salud, Partners In Health.

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