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AFRO-NETS> Press release WHO: Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland

Press release WHO: Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland

13 May 1998


The Fifty-first session of the World Health Assembly, meet-
ing 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 East-
ern 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 pov-
erty 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 com-
plex 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 dra-
matic from an economic, social and health perspective". As 
regards the transition from the communicable diseases to 
the non-communicable diseases, Dr Brundtland noted that: 
"They cannot be seen as competing tasks. They are comple-
mentary. 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 en-
ables us to do fully what we decide to do - and to let go 
what we decide not to do - either because others do it bet-
ter or because we simply can't do all". Describing the re-
organization 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 qual-
ity services to all, with a particular emphasis on the 
situation of women and mothers who are so critical for giv-
ing 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 proj-
ects". Not too many, but easy to define, easy to identify, 
open to our partners to cosponsor - and transparent for do-
nors to lend their financial support to." Among the first 
priorities for such projects she proposed to "Roll Back Ma-
laria, 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 con-
certed effort. Africa is responding. African leaders are 
committing to a renewed effort to control malaria. Africa 
should be spearheading the project", Dr Brundtland an-

"My second emphasis is in the field of non communicable 
diseases", said the new Director-General. "We need to ad-
dress a major cause of premature death which is dramati-
cally 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 doc-
tor. I believe in science and evidence. Let me state here 
today. Tobacco is a killer."

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the first woman to become Direc-
tor-General of WHO, concluded her speech by saying: "My mo-
tivation 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."

Biographical note on Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland was born on 20 April 1939 in Oslo, 
Norway. She studied medicine at the University of Oslo, 
from which she obtained her M.D. degree in 1963. She re-
ceived the degree of Master of Public Health from Harvard 
University in 1965.

>From 1965 to 1967, Dr Brundtland served as medical officer 
at the Norwegian Directorate of Health. From 1968 to 1974, 
she was Assistant medical Director at the Oslo Board of 
Health, Department of School Services. In 1974, Dr 
Brundtland was appointed Minister of Environment, a posi-
tion she held for five years. Appointed Prime Minister for 
the first time in 1981, Dr Brundtland held this position 
three times, the latest service from 1990 to October 1996. 
Altogether she was Head of Government for more than 10 

Among her numerous international positions, Dr Brundtland 
chaired, starting in 1983, the World Commission on Environ-
ment and Development, which coined the concept of "sustain-
able development" and made recommendations leading to the 
Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Dr Brundtland is married and is a mother of four, and a 
grandmother of seven.


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