Health ministers in the Western Pacific nominated a surgeon from Tonga, Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala, to lead the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) regional office at a meeting in Manila on Tuesday.
Piukala’s nomination for WHO’s top job in the Western Pacific comes months after the UN health agency fired its previous director, Dr Takeshi Kasai, following allegations of racism and misconduct first reported by The Associated Press last year.
WHO said in a statement that Dr Piukala has nearly three decades of experience working in public health in Tonga and across the region in areas including chronic diseases, climate change and disaster response.
Dr Piukala was most recently Tonga’s minister of health and defeated rival candidates from China, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Vietnam.
Last January, the AP reported that dozens of WHO staffers in the Western Pacific region alleged that Dr Kasai, the previous regional director, made racist remarks to his staff and blamed the rise of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socioeconomic level.”
Dr Kasai rejected allegations that he ever used racist language.
Days after the AP report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that an internal investigation into Dr Kasai had begun. In March, WHO announced it had terminated Dr Kasai’s appointment after the inquiry resulted in “findings of misconduct.”
It was the first time in WHO’s history that a regional director was dismissed.
Dr Piukala said he was grateful for the nomination and credited his experience in Pacific Island countries and his “fellow villagers” for his success.
“I thank you sincerely for the trust you have placed in me today,” Dr Piukala said. Dr Piukala will be formally appointed for a five-year term at WHO’s Executive Board meeting in January.
WHO regional directors wield significant influence in public health and their decisions may help contain emerging outbreaks of potentially dangerous new outbreaks like the coronavirus and bird flu.
In January, the AP reported that a senior WHO Fijian doctor with a history of sexual assault allegations had also been planning to stand for election as the Western Pacific’s director, with support from his home government and some WHO staffers. Months after that report, WHO announced the physician, Dr Temo Waqanivalu, had also been fired.
In recent years, WHO has been plagued by accusations of misconduct across multiple offices, including its director in Syria and senior managers who were informed of sexual exploitation in Congo during an Ebola outbreak but did little to stop it.