Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was elected WHO Director-General for a five-year term by the WHO Member States at the Seventieth World Health Assembly in May 2017. In doing so, he was the first WHO Director-General elected from among multiple candidates by the World Health Assembly. He was the first person from the WHO African Region to head the world’s leading public health agency. Dr Tedros has also received multiple national and institutional recognitions, including becoming the first non-American to be awarded the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award in 2011 in recognition of his contributions to public health; one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020; the African of the Year Award for 2020 of the African Leadership Magazine; and Global Health Leader Award presented by Amref Health Africa in 2021, amongst others.
Born and raised in the conflict-ridden Tigray region of Ethiopia, Dr Tedros witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of civil war and the prevalence of diseases like malaria and measles. Recalling the dreaded period, he says, “I recall being deeply aware of the suffering and death caused by malaria as a child. The loss of my younger brother, possibly from a preventable disease like measles, remains a defining personal experience that drives my unwavering commitment to global healthcare.”
This adversity further fueled his passion for improving health outcomes and serving communities in need. He pursued his academic education in the field of biology, earning a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Asmara in 1986. After gaining experience as a junior public health expert for the Ministry of Health in Ethiopia, he furthered his studies in the immunology of infectious diseases by obtaining a Master’s degree from the University of London in 1992. He solidified his expertise and credentials in the field of public health with a Ph.D. in Community Health from the University of Nottingham in 2002. Dr. Tedros’ showcased his brilliance in the sector during his tenure as the Minister of Health from 2005 to 2012, during which he led a comprehensive reform of Ethiopia’s health system, focusing on universal health coverage and provision of services to all people, even in remote areas.
Dr. Tedros’ leadership had a lasting impact on the health sector in Ethiopia. Under his guidance, the country saw significant growth in its health infrastructure, with innovative health financing mechanisms and an expanded health workforce. One of the key reforms he drove was creating a primary healthcare extension program that deployed 40,000 female health workers throughout the country. The results of these efforts were remarkable, with an approximate 60% reduction in child and maternal mortality compared to 2000 levels.
Under his tenure as the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2012 to 2016, Dr Tedros elevated the issue of health to a national, regional, and global political level. He was critical in negotiating the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, a landmark agreement in which 193 countries committed to providing the necessary financing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This commitment has helped ensure that health remains a top priority for governments and communities worldwide.
He then took office as the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) on July 1st, 2017. Dr Tedros initiated the most significant transformation in the organization’s history. Under his leadership, the WHO has achieved numerous milestones and has been instrumental in advancing global health efforts. Dr Tedros’ commitment to improving health outcomes and his innovative approach to leadership has set a new standard for the WHO and the global health community.
Dr Tedros has a unique approach to tackling health problems, rooted in his commitment to reaching people at the grassroots level. He says, “I like traveling to rural areas. I like to see real people. I like to see the problem. You can’t see it from here.” A deep sense of purpose drives his passion for solving health problems; he explains, “Many people say they’re motivated by a positive thing. But for me, what wakes me in the morning is the problem that has to be addressed. So I push on.”
Under Dr. Tedros’ leadership, WHO has made tremendous strides in improving health outcomes and reducing the impact of diseases globally. He says, “One of the most significant achievements is the successful implementation of a malaria vaccine, which has already been administered to over one million children in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. The widespread use of this vaccine, as recommended by WHO, has the potential to save thousands of lives, especially in Africa, each year.” He continues, “In the past five years, 14 countries and territories have successfully eliminated at least one neglected tropical disease, while the cases of African trypanosomiasis have declined by 90% in just ten years.” Additionally, the number of cases of Guinea worm disease has dramatically reduced, with only 15 cases reported last year, compared to 3.5 million in the mid-1980s. He adds, “With only two cases reported in 2022, the dream of a world free of this disease is within reach. The fight against poliovirus also yields positive results, with only four cases reported in Afghanistan and Pakistan this year, despite two new cases reported in Malawi and Mozambique.”
In addition, Dr Tedros successfully navigated the uncharted waters of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing critical guidance and support to nations worldwide. He also expertly guided the response to Ebola outbreaks in the DRC and the health consequences of multiple humanitarian crises, most notably the war in Ukraine. With his unwavering commitment to improving health outcomes, Dr Tedros has proven to be a visionary leader, navigating complex challenges and achieving meaningful results.
Despite all the progress and achievements, Dr Tedros recognizes that the challenges facing global health are still immense and persistent. He acknowledges the looming threat of climate change and the impact it will have. He says, “The specter of climate change threatens worsening natural disasters, rapid urbanization, forced migration, and economic hardship for the most vulnerable. Despite significant global advances, the inability to effectively address epidemics and health emergencies still prevails and continuously threatens global health security and economic development,” warns Dr Tedros.
To tackle these challenges, he believes in the power of being proactive and prepared rather than being reactive. As the famous quote goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”