WHO Regional Director Hanan Balkhy: We are delivering critical medical supplies and fuel to keep Gaza's hospitals running

In an interview with Al Majalla, the regional director at the World Health Organization lays out the challenges she faces in her new role and shares her recipe for success

In an interview with Al Majalla, the regional director at the World Health Organization, Dr Hanan Balkhy, lays out the challenges she faces in her new role and shares her recipe for success
In an interview with Al Majalla, the regional director at the World Health Organization, Dr Hanan Balkhy, lays out the challenges she faces in her new role and shares her recipe for success

WHO Regional Director Hanan Balkhy: We are delivering critical medical supplies and fuel to keep Gaza's hospitals running

Dr Hanan Balkhy, the new Regional Director at the World Health Organisation for the Eastern Mediterranean, sat down with Al Majalla in February to discuss her successful career and the priorities in her role as the Gaza war enters its fifth month.

She also shared her views on her work ethic, the most challenging period in her career, work-life balance, and stereotypes about the Arab world in the West.

A Saudi physician by practice, Dr Balkhy grew up in the United States when she was a child. Her family moved back to Saudi Arabia, where she completed her primary and secondary education. She graduated from the Faculty of Medicine at King Abdulaziz University in 1991.

Dr Balkhy did her pediatric residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston between 1993 and 1996. She also received a fellowship in pediatric infectious diseases from the Joint Pediatric Infectious Disease Program of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital from 1996 to 1999.

During her fellowship, she worked on the immunological response of Salmonella endotoxin in mice models under the mentorship of Professor Frederick Heinzel. She worked as the Executive Director of Infection Prevention and Control at the Ministry of National Guard in Saudi Arabia for ten years.

Dr Balkhy led the infectious diseases research department at King Abdullah International Research Centre at King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences in Riyadh. She was the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Infection and Public Health from 2009-2019.

At the World Health Organization, Dr Balkhy serves on several committees related to antimicrobial resistance, including the UN Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (IACG). She is a fellow at the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

In an interview with Al Majalla, the regional director at the World Health Organization, Dr Hanan Balkhy, lays out the challenges she faces in her new role and shares her recipe for success

Below is the full transcript of the interview.

What made you stand out from the crowd to get this prestigious role?

The World Health Organization is considered the mecca of most health workers, and they aspire to work there. However, a lot of hard work goes into working with WHO because it has a different mandate.

The mandate is not just technical but also political and operational. I think it was a bit easier for me than others to rise through the ranks of WHO because of my engagement and significant interest in the work that WHO does.

I was on at least 15 different committees over a period of 15 years. I was also leading a WHO Collaborating Centre for ten years, and they've worked a lot on many of the guidelines that were developed and in the training world workshops WHO was conducting.

I saw myself as a WHO partner from a very early stage of my career, which made it much easier to eventually move into the actual system of the WHO.

One of the most fascinating lines I read about you is that the most important factor in determining whether an individual will succeed in his or her job doesn’t have to do with gender or nationality; it is the individual, himself or herself.

Absolutely, I think it's very important to acknowledge that I've always been gender agnostic; I don't expect special treatment or discrimination due to my gender.

I focus on the job at hand and work very hard to produce the product. And when I get what I want, it's all well and good. If I don't, I don't feel bitter or victimize myself ever.

It's really about doing the work at hand and being effective, regardless of where you are or who you are.

We did a phenomenal job of ensuring the MERS Coronavirus outbreak in Saudi Arabia was quickly contained.

Dr Hanan Balkhy, WHO Regional Director

What's the most challenging thing you have faced in your career so far?

I think the most challenging period of my career was in 2015 when I was the leading person in the MERS Coronavirus (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus) outbreak in our institution back in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

I was at the forefront of confronting the outbreak. It is our job to prevent, mitigate and resolve such outbreaks.

The reason why it was quite challenging was because the MERS Coronavirus is a cousin of COVID-19. It's a very particular virus in its behaviour. 

It was epidemiology, and it required a lot of work from my side to ensure that there was clear leadership and clear interventions to mitigate and stop the chain of transmission.

I felt responsible for ensuring that the train moved coherently and that the work was being done.

It was a large outbreak — the second largest in Saudi Arabia. And I was very proud, in the end, that the cooperation and collaboration within the organisation's leadership did a phenomenal job of ensuring that the outbreak was quickly contained.

What is your work ethic, and what do you think made you successful in your career?

I think the first important thing is really understanding what you're doing and appreciating it. Success is not about what level you've achieved in your leadership. It's about the outcome of your work.

And automatically, you will be asked to address hold and lead more difficult portfolios and challenges.

But the work ethic is all about being mindful of the job, paying attention to the details, and perseverance.

Two more elements I always tell my mentees about is very clear communication, whether written, verbal or even body language. Writing skills are extremely important in our type of work, especially within WHO.


There are some misconceptions and stereotypes of the Arab world in the West. What is one stereotype that you wish to dispel?

I think one of the stereotypes is that there aren't enough qualified people who pay attention to details and know how to communicate well, whether verbally or in written communication platforms. And I think it's also because they would look at the non-primary language communication.

We have delivered 790 metric tonnes of medical supplies, equipment, and fuel to keep Gaza's hospitals running.

Dr Hanan Balkhy, WHO Regional Director

As a successful woman, is there such a thing as work-life balance?

Yes, that's a very important question. And there always has to be a work-life balance. There are certain periods of my life where I had to prioritise work and get certain jobs done, and then I take a break and pay attention to my personal life.

Then, there were times when I had to prioritise, for example, my child's illness or my mother's illness or myself. So it's all about prioritisation. The work-life balance isn't necessarily 50-50. Every day, every month, it is a give and take, and it's a prioritisation.

To build a career, there has to be a good amount of investment in the workplace. But that should not by any means mean that you do not take care of yourself, your children or your loved ones.

What are WHO's priorities in the region this year?

To improve healthcare access to everybody, everywhere. I hope to make sure that the elements are in place and the teams are oriented to capitalise on our resources.

I'm working to create those collaborations with our partners and member states so that we can deliver on the priorities of access to health, mitigating emergencies, improving public health, surveillance and prevention of disease, as well as enhancing partnerships.

In doing all of that, we also have to pay attention to the regional and country offices.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating day in and day out; for instance, life-saving machines cannot function properly due to the lack of electricity.

Palestinians are dying due to a severe shortage of medicine, including medicine for chronic diseases like insulin, for instance. What concrete steps has WHO taken to help?

WHO is very active on the ground, and we're doing everything possible to reach health facilities and patients.

For example, we have delivered 790 metric tonnes of critical emergency supplies, medicines, and medical equipment to Gaza, as well as fuel to keep our hospitals and other hospitals running.

A convoy of ambulances during a WHO, UN humanitarian agency OCHA and Palestinian Red Crescent mission to evacuate patients from Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis Gaza on February 18, 2024.

But there are, of course, very huge challenges, as the heavy fighting is impeding this access.

We continue to call for safe access for humanitarian personnel and supplies for healthcare, for people to be protected, and for hospitals to be protected.

We continue to do all of this and hope and pray ultimately for peace.

How does the World Health Organization facilitate its aid deliveries to Gaza? 

Well, this is part and parcel of the negotiations not only for access to health aid but also a whole UN approach to how we communicate the diplomatic and political aspects of opening borders and facilitating the movement of the envoys.

So, working on the ground with our local Palestinian partners is crucial. And we've done quite well, but I can tell you, it is not to our satisfaction.

And we've been very vocal about the necessity to open the borders or corridors so that we can secure as much access to the people there on the ground.

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