Target Health Blog

World Health Organization

November 2, 2020

History of Medicine

The logo of the World Health OrganizationLogo credit: by Font: Adrian Frutiger, Logotype: The World Health Organization - Website and publications of the World Health Organization: Source 1Source 2, Public Domain; Wikipedia Commons
World Health Organization headquarters, Geneva, north and west sides.Photo credit: by I, Yann, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The International Sanitary Conferences, originally held on 23 June 1851, were the first predecessors of the World Health Organization (WHO). A series of 14 conferences that lasted from 1851 to 1938, the International Sanitary Conferences worked to combat many diseases, chief among them cholera, yellow fever, and the bubonic plague. The conferences were largely ineffective until the seventh, in 1892; when an International Sanitary Convention that dealt with cholera was passed. Five years later, a convention for the plague was signed. In part as a result of the successes of the Conferences, the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau (1902), and the Office International d'Hygiene Publique (1907) were soon founded. When the League of Nations was formed in 1920, they established the Health Organization of the League of Nations. After World War II, the United Nations absorbed all the other health organizations, to form the WHO.

The WHO is now a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health. The WHO Constitution, which establishes the agency's governing structure and principles, states its main objective as “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.“ It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, with six semi-autonomous regional offices and 150 field offices worldwide.

The WHO's broad mandate includes advocating for universal healthcare, monitoring public health risks, coordinating responses to health emergencies, and promoting human health and well-being. It provides technical assistance to countries, sets international health standards and guidelines, and collects data on global health issues through the World Health Survey. Its flagship publication, the World Health Report, provides expert assessments of global health topics and health statistics on all nations. The WHO also serves as a forum for summits and discussions on health issues.

The WHO has played a leading role in several public health achievements, most notably the eradication of smallpox, the near-eradication of polio, and the development of an Ebola vaccine. Its current priorities include communicable diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS, Ebola, malaria and tuberculosis; non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancer; healthy diet, nutrition, and food security; occupational health; and substance abuse. The WHA, composed of representatives from all 194 member states, serves as the agency's supreme decision-making body. It also elects and advises an Executive Board made up of 34 health specialists. The WHA convenes annually and is responsible for selecting the Director-General, setting goals and priorities, and approving the WHO's budget and activities. The current Director-General is Tedros Adhanom, former Health Minister and Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, who began his five-year term on 1 July 2017.

Establishment: During the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization, Szeming Sze, a delegate from the Republic of China, conferred with Norwegian and Brazilian delegates on creating an international health organization under the auspices of the new United Nations. After failing to get a resolution passed on the subject, Alger Hiss, the Secretary General of the conference, recommended using a declaration to establish such an organization. Sze and other delegates lobbied and a declaration passed calling for an international conference on health. The use of the word “world“, rather than “international“, emphasized the truly global nature of what the organization was seeking to achieve.

The first meeting of the World Health Assembly finished on 24 July 1948. Andrija Stampar was the Assembly's first president, and G. Brock Chisholm was appointed Director-General of WHO, having served as Executive Secretary during the planning stages. Its first priorities were to control the spread of malaria, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted infections, and to improve maternal and child health, nutrition and environmental hygiene. Its first legislative act was concerning the compilation of accurate statistics on the spread and morbidity of disease. The logo of the World Health Organization features the Rod of Asclepius as a symbol for healing.

Operational history of WHO: Three former directors of the Global Smallpox Eradication Programme read the news that smallpox had been globally eradicated, 1980 - 1947: The WHO established an epidemiological information service via telex, and by 1950 a mass tuberculosis inoculation drive using the BCG vaccine was under way.

1955: The malaria eradication programme was launched, although it was later altered in objective. 1955 saw the first report on diabetes mellitus and the creation of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

1958: Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health for the USSR, called on the World Health Assembly to undertake a global initiative to eradicate smallpox. At this point, 2 million people were dying from smallpox every year.

1967: The WHO intensified the global smallpox eradication and adopted a new disease surveillance method. The initial problem the WHO team faced was inadequate reporting of smallpox cases. WHO established a network of consultants who assisted countries in setting up surveillance and containment activities. The WHO also helped contain the last European outbreak in Yugoslavia in 1972. After over two decades of fighting smallpox, the WHO declared in 1979 that the disease had been eradicated - the first disease in history to be eliminated by human effort.

1967: The WHO launched the Special Program for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases and the World Health Assembly voted to enact a resolution on Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation, with a focus on community-driven care.

1974: The Expanded Programme on Immunization and the control programme of onchocerciasis was started, an important partnership between the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the World Bank.

1977: The first list of essential medicines was drawn up, and a year later the ambitious goal of “Health For All“ was declared.

1986: The WHO began its global program on HIV/AIDS. Two years later preventing discrimination against sufferers was attended to and in 1996 UNAIDS was formed.

1988: The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was established.

1998: WHO's Director-General highlighted gains in child survival, reduced infant mortality, increased life expectancy and reduced rates of “scourges“ such as smallpox and polio on the fiftieth anniversary of WHO's founding.

2000: The Stop TB Partnership was created along with the UN's formulation of the Millennium Development Goals.

2001: The measles initiative was formed, and credited with reducing global deaths from the disease by 68% by 2007.

2002: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was drawn up to improve the resources available.

2006: The organization endorsed the world's first official HIV/AIDS Toolkit for Zimbabwe, which formed the basis for global prevention, treatment, and support the plan to fight the AIDS pandemic.

Overall focus: The WHO's Constitution states that its objective “is the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health“. As of 2012, the WHO has defined its role in public health as follows:

1.     providing leadership on matters critical to health and engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed;

2.     shaping the research agenda and stimulating the generation, translation, and dissemination of valuable knowledge;

3.     setting norms and standards and promoting and monitoring their implementation;

4.     articulating ethical and evidence-based policy options;

5.     providing technical support, catalyzing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity.

6.     monitoring the health situation and assessing health trends.

7.     CRVS (civil registration and vital statistics) to provide monitoring of vital events (birth, death, wedding, divorce).

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