Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, now in Geneva to attend the World Health Organization's 59th annual assembly, reacted with shock on Monday to the news at the assembly's opening that WHO director-general Dr. Lee Jong-wook had died.
Dozens of health ministers from member countries and health professionals from around the world who are attending the assembly stood in a moment of silence in his memory.
Lee, 61, had been in hospital since Saturday afternoon, where he underwent surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain (a subdural hematoma). He remained in intensive care, but on Monday morning he was declared dead. Lee, who served at the head of the WHO for two years, is survived by his wife and son, two brothers and a sister and their families.
Ben-Yizri said he had not had the opportunity to meet Lee, but that he had heard much about the man's work to promote health around the world. Lee, a physician, invested much effort in the fight against AIDS and tuberculosis and joined the international effort after the tsunami catastrophe in southeast Asia and the avian flu epidemic.
Lee had said in the past that he wanted to visit Israel and to first go to Auschwitz on his way to Israel to "better understand the history of the Jewish people."
This is the first time the WHO must face the death of a serving leader. Lee was to have opened the session of the World Health Assembly. Dr Inon Schenker, one of the few Israelis who has worked for the WHO in Geneva, noted that Dr. Anders Nordstrom, currently assistant director-general, has assumed Lee's responsibilities and is now acting director-general. Schenker foresees the deliberations being dramatically influenced by the tragic news, with most "corridor discussions" geared towards a rapid selection and nomination of the next head of the WHO.