New World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus holds a news conference May 24 in Geneva.

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Ethiopia's Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus chosen as director general of the World Health Organisation

He is the first African to ever hold that position

CNN  — 

An African national has been voted to head the World Health Organization for the first time in the agency’s history.

Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was chosen as director general of the WHO after winning over 66% of the required votes to defeat his closest challenger, the UK’s David Nabarro.

In nearly 70 years of the agency’s existence, Ghebreyesus, the former Ethiopian health minister, is the first African to get elected.

Ghebreyesus will succeed Margaret Chan, who has been director general since 2007.

“All roads lead to universal coverage. This will be my central priority,” Ghebreyesus told health ministers at the WHO’s annual assembly after his election.

During the session, he noted that only half of people today currently have access to health care without risking impoverishment.

As Ethiopia’s health minister, he turned around an ailing system and led a reform of the country’s health section, creating 3,500 medical centers and increasing the medical work force by 38,000 – the vast majority of them women.

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    His leadership during this time was praised in an op-ed by former USAID Administrator Ariel Pablos-Mendez: “Ethiopia has fallen short in some health markers. … But by almost any measure, it is showing the way to a new era in world health. The basis of this progress has been innovative leadership by Dr. Tedros.”

    In an interview with The Lancet last year, Ghebreyesus vowed to advance universal health coverage and expand access to medicine and services for conditions such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, diabetes, cancer and mental health disorders.