Top US official pressures WHO to address claims that one of its doctors sexually assaulted women

Streaming HUBFebruary 2, 2023

A top US health official urged the World Health Organization to address allegations reported by The Associated Press that one of its doctors repeatedly engaged in sexual misconduct.

“There are many of us who stand with the survivors and those who identify as victims and are genuinely committed, but also dismayed by where things stand to date Lois Pace, assistant secretary for global affairs at the US Department of Health and Human Services, said at a WHO executive board meeting on Tuesday.

Last month, the AP reported that a WHO doctor accused of sexually assaulting a woman at the Berlin conference in October was flagged years earlier to senior WHO directors for allegedly harassing another employee. The earlier allegation yielded no significant consequences for the doctor, Temo Vakanivalu, who was preparing to run for regional director for the Western Pacific region, with the help of WHO allies and the presidential office in his home country of Fiji.

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the meeting that the investigation into the October incident had been completed.

“We are sorry that the media identified the alleged perpetrator,” Tedros said during a discussion on preventing sexual abuse. There are no plans to publicly release the investigation into Vakanivalu’s alleged misconduct.

Loyce Pace of the Department of Health and Human Services is seen during the 75th World Health Assembly on May 24, 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Loyce Pace of the Department of Health and Human Services is seen during the 75th World Health Assembly on May 24, 2022 in Geneva, Switzerland.
(Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone Via AP)

Tedros said, ‘If the allegations are proved, disciplinary action will be taken.’

Senior WHO directors were informed about the sexual assault allegation against Vakanivalu in 2018, according to confidential documents obtained by the AP. The accused was later informed that conducting a formal inquiry may not be the best option for him.

In his interview with WHO investigators, Vakanivalu “categorically” denied that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone. He declined to comment to the AP.

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In recent years, the WHO has been plagued by numerous reports of misconduct. In May 2021, the AP reported that senior WHO managers were informed about allegations of sexual abuse during the Ebola outbreak in Congo, but did nothing to stop it. A panel appointed by the WHO later found that more than 80 staff sexually abused women under the direction of the WHO.

No senior WHO official linked to the abuse has been sacked. Tedros said on Tuesday that three WHO staffers who were on administrative leave following allegations of misconduct had returned to work after a UN probe by an independent panel disputed findings that they had engaged in “managerial misconduct”.

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At the session on Tuesday, a Fijian representative of the WHO said that all persons accused of sexual misconduct should be treated fairly. He said WHO officials who leaked “highly confidential information” should be held accountable. “Due process must be respected and all persons involved must be treated fairly,” the official said.

Wakanivalu, the regional director for the Western Pacific region seeking to replace him at the WHO, was placed on leave in August months after the AP reported that several staffers accused him of racist and abusive behavior, which prompted the UN The agency’s response to COVID-19 was compromised.

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