A Chinese bid flu expert has become the World Health Organisation’s new leader. Dr Margaret Chan’s appointment as secretary general was announced yesterday by the WHO's World Health Assembly.

She succeeds Dr Lee Jong-Wook of South Korea who died suddenly in May just three years into his five-year term., and becomes the first Chinese national to head a United Nations agency.

Dr Chan has been in charge of the WHO's fight against the threat of a flu pandemic. Before that she worked for nine years as director of Hong Kong's health department, where she played a key role in the fight against the world's first outbreak of bird flu in 1997.

She also has experience in dealing with another deadly respiratory disease, SARS, which spread from Asia into other parts of the world in 2002-2003.

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations night the news of her appointment.

Dr Harvey Bale, IFPMA Director General, said: "Dr Chan’s public health experience and first-hand insight into the WHO, coupled with formidable personal qualities, equip her to perform well as WHO Director General, providing the organisation with clear direction and appropriate priorities.”

He added: “She has shown a capability to focus on obtaining concrete results, and is willing to work with partners who can help achieve them. We warmly congratulate her, wish her success, and will seek to contribute to helping her to move forward the public health agenda of the WHO.”

The leadership of Lee Jong-Wook and that of Gro Harlem Brundtland before him helped transform the image of the previously moribund health agency. The emergence of SARS, bird flu and increasing concern about the AIDS disaster in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world have further raised the organisation’s profile.

Dr Chan beat off challenges by Mexico's Health Minister Julio Frenk, Japan's Shigeru Omi, a senior WHO official, Spain's Health Minister Elena Salgado and another top WHO official, Kuwait's Kazem Behbehani in final voting on Wednesday.