Hiroshi Nakajima, 84; led WHO in controversial stint

Dr. Nakajima with a World Health Organization report. His term ended in 1998.
Donald Stampfli/Associated Press
Dr. Nakajima with a World Health Organization report. His term ended in 1998.

NEW YORK — Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima — a Japanese physician who as leader of the World Health Organization started campaigns to fight malaria and other infectious diseases but whose tenure, from 1988 to 1998, was marred by repeated accusations of mismanagement — died last Saturday in Poitiers, France. He was 84.

He died after a short illness.

Besides his efforts to fight infectious diseases — including AIDS, tuberculosis, and dengue fever — Dr. Nakajima enlarged the organization’s focus on preventive medicine and vaccinations for children and tried to rally international support to end ritual female genital mutilation. In a statement Monday, Margaret Chan, the current WHO director general, praised his efforts to defeat polio.


But he came under frequent criticism. The United States and other Western nations twice opposed his election as director general of the agency, which is part of the United Nations. They contended he had not infused a clear sense of direction and had let the agency’s budget balloon.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

In 1992, when Washington was fighting Dr. Nakajima’s reelection, Louis W. Sullivan, the secretary of health and human services, wrote, “It appears that WHO is losing its reputation as the world’s leader in health matters at a time when serious global health problems present daunting challenges to us all.”

Dr. Nakajima was again cast in a harsh light when Jonathan Mann, commander of the United Nations’ fight against AIDS, resigned in 1990. Mann said he resigned over “issues of principle” and “major disagreements” with Dr. ­Nakajima, who wanted to deemphasize AIDS prevention and put more effort into other diseases such as malaria.

Dr. June Osborn, chairwoman of the National Commission on AIDS, called the resignation of Mann, who died in 1998, “a world tragedy.”

In the 1992 director general election, the United States accused Japan of overly aggressive tactics in promoting Dr. Nakajima’s candidacy.


In 1997, Dr. Nakajima announced that he would not seek a third term, in part because he had lost support from African nations after he suggested that Africans had difficulty conceptualizing and writing reports.

He graduated from Tokyo Medical University in 1955.