A to Z: The World Health Organization

The World Health Organization, abbreviated WHO, is often thought of as the authority on all matters related to human health on an international level. This broad definition isn’t inaccurate. As an agency of the United Nations, the WHO has a far-reaching effect on the world’s health. Their primary focus is improving the general health and wellness of the population of the world by identifying and tackling issues and problems such as: disease, hygiene, aging, nutrition and food security, sexual health, occupational health, substance abuse, and more.

What is the WHO?

Every year on the 7th of April, World Health Day is celebrated. This day marks the signing of the WHO’s constitution by 61 countries in 1948. These countries came together to declare their goals of working to make the world a safer and healthier place for all who inhabit it.

The predecessor of the WHO was the International Sanitary Conferences which began in 1851. Their main focus was fighting off the numerous diseases that plagued people in different parts of the world. At the time, their biggest challenges were diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and the infamous bubonic plague. While the powers behind the International Sanitary Conferences were on the right track and had a noble goal ahead of them, it took over a decade before their efforts would see measurable progress. Their successes led to the development of two organizations that would work to oversee public health: the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau and its French counterpart, the Office International d’Hygiene Publique. 

These two organizations would continue the work of the International Sanitary Conferences until the end of World War I, when the League of Nations was formed. The League of Nations created an organization of their own called the Health Organization of the League of Nations. This was the direct precursor to the international governing body that the world knows today, the United Nations. After the resolution of the Second World War came to pass, the United Nations would be formed and would take over the services and missions of all related health organizations. This new UN organization would be called the World Health Organization.

Source: Vardel Institutet

Source: Vardel Institutet

Interestingly, achieving the creation of such an organization wasn’t an easy task. The 1945 UN conference found itself in conflict when delegates from China, Norway, and Brazil worked to pass a resolution that would form a branch of the UN that was dedicated to international health. At the advice of the Secretary General of the 1945 conference, the triad of delegates decided to take another route and declare that a conference be had with the sole purpose of forming an international health organization.

It was at this conference that the respected delegates around the table decided to nix the word “international” in favor of “world”. They decided that if they were going to have an organization tasked with something as vital and delicate as human health, it needed to be emphasized that it was an organization focused on the global nature of the problems at hand. In agreement, all current UN members (which encompassed 51 countries) signed the constitution of such an organization, as well as 10 other non-member countries who wanted to take part. Their constitution stated their objective as being “the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health.”

By 1948, the WHO would have its first assembly. The assembly brought forth a budget, a governing body, and its very first objectives. Their tasks set before them were the controlling of the ever-spreading malaria, tuberculosis, and getting sexually transmitted infections under control. They also were focused on reproductive health and reducing infant mortality rates and helping to make general improvements to the world’s nutrition and hygiene issues. 

Currently there are over 7000 people employed in the service of the World Health Organization. These people originate from over 150 different countries, territories, and areas and work in any number of service centers throughout the world. It’s staffed by scientists, epidemiologists, specialists in public health, medical doctors, health statisticians, economists, emergency relief experts, and numerous administrative and managerial staff. The WHO is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland and headed by Director-General Tedros Adhanom.


What is the WHO’s role in the world?

The WHO’s constitution defines its objectives and functions as: 

(a) to act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work (b) to establish and maintain effective collaboration with the United Nations, specialized agencies, governmental health administrations, professional groups and such other organizations as may be deemed appropriate (c) to assist Governments, upon request, in strengthening health services (d) to furnish appropriate technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of Governments (e) to provide or assist in providing, upon the request of the United Nations, health services and facilities to special groups, such as the peoples of trust territories (f) to establish and maintain such administrative and technical services as may be required, including epidemiological and statistical services (g) to stimulate and advance work to eradicate epidemic, endemic and other diseases (h) to promote, in co-operation with other specialized agencies where necessary, the prevention of accidental injuries (i) to promote, in co-operation with other specialized agencies where necessary, the improvement of nutrition, housing, sanitation, recreation, economic or working conditions and other aspects of environmental hygiene (j) to promote co-operation among scientific and professional groups which contribute to the advancement of health (k) to propose conventions, agreements and regulations, and make recommendations with respect to international health matters and to perform.

Source: AMUN

Source: AMUN

In 2012, it clarified and revised its role to include: “providing leadership on matters critical to health and engaging in partnerships where joint action is needed; shaping the research agenda and stimulating the generation, translation, and dissemination of valuable knowledge; setting norms and standards and promoting and monitoring their implementation; articulating ethical and evidence-based policy options; providing technical support, catalysing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity; and monitoring the health situation and assessing health trends.”

The WHO is under constant reform. As times change, the current health concerns, diseases, and issues change along with them. Because of this, the WHO has taken up practice in being self-critical to ensure that they’re always equipped for new challenges and ready to confront persistent and emerging threats to public health. The WHO has clear objectives and a well-defined role in the world, but they’ve recognized the need for that role to be ever-capable and flexible so that they can adequately respond to an environment that is in constant flux.


What does the WHO do specifically?

The WHO tackles world problems pertaining to health in a series of campaigns. At any one time, there are dozens of campaigns in action; each with their specific focus. These campaign focuses get quite specific to regions and particular issues, but overall, they’re divided into larger priority areas. These priority areas include:

  • Communicable Diseases

Some prominent campaigns in this category are the combatting of HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio, and tuberculosis, but this category encompasses any such diseases that are passed from person to person. Some campaigns focus on eradication, where a disease is fought until it ceases to exist anywhere in the world, while some are more dialed back and are focused on control so that the disease’s effects are lessened and aren’t as wide-reaching.

For example, the WHO had a prominent campaign in the 1970s to eradicate malaria. The eradication of malaria was such a massive, ambitious task that the campaign objective switched from eradication to control. Controlling malaria involved tasks such as: reporting and tracking malaria outbreaks and cases, discovery and delivery of vaccines and antimalarial treatments, spread prevention by mosquito population culling, and prevention education and protection.

While eradication is obviously the preferred action, often times the budget, manpower, and current science and technology aren’t enough to tackle such goals. However, the WHO’s shift to control over eradication in some campaigns contributes to massive declines in victims of communicable diseases and more successful treatments for those who have been exposed. In the case of Polio, the WHO’s campaigns have resulted in 99% reduction in overall polio cases, countries that are entirely eradiated of polio, an effective vaccine, and the WHO provides continuous efforts to ensure that the disease never re-emerges.

Source:  UN Brussels

Source: UN Brussels

  • Non-communicable Diseases

This area focuses on preventing and reducing diseases, disabilities, and premature deaths from conditions that aren’t spread from person to person. This includes “chronic non-communicable diseases, mental disorders, violence and injuries, and visual impairment”.

  • Environmental Health

A 2010 WHO report stated that there are an estimated 12.6 million people who died due to factors related to an unhealthy working and/or living environment in that year alone. That’s nearly 25% of total deaths worldwide. These factors include environmental risk factors such as pollution, exposure to chemicals, UV radiation, climate change, and more.

  • Life Course

This area focuses on risk factors and health issues that occur over one’s normal life and in one’s chosen lifestyle. It includes pregnancy and childbirth, sexual health, healthy aging, and encourages healthful living through proper eating and regular activity as well as discourages easily preventable risk factors for health conditions like the use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco.

  • Trauma & Surgery

Thanks to the WHO, there are trauma and surgery initiatives that outline necessities of emergency and surgical care so that such instances can be safer for the patient and the staff alike. The WHO also examines common causes of injuries and trauma such as traffic-related accidents.

  • Emergency Work

This encompasses the assessment and intervention in natural and man-made emergencies in order to prevent as much loss of life as possible, prevent the spread and effects of disease and disability, and to help restore the area back to a regular livable state.

  • Health Policy & Public Health

Source:  UN Lao

Source: UN Lao

The WHO helps governments address their unique social, economic, and regional health issues and threats to public health through policy and programs designed to help alleviate these threats and active issues. The overall goal of this is to help governments promote healthier, happier populations by addressing the environment, economy, human-rights and equity status, and helping to prevent issues from arising through influencing positive change.

  • Data & Publications

The WHO is also responsible for health and well-being related data collection through worldwide surveys and studies. This data is collected, analyzed, used accordingly, and published for public consumption and education. They also assess current global health issues and publish news and information about them in the regular publication, World Health Report.


What difference has the WHO made in the world?

Some notable achievements include:

The promotion of women’s rights-

Source:  WHO

Source: WHO

In 1979, the UN led a convention to take steps towards eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. 187 different countries endorsed the bill, which went on to be known as the international bill of rights for women. It was the first major way in which equality for women was recognized internationally as ensuring equal access to opportunities in “political and public life–including the right to vote and to stand for election–as well as education, health, and employment.”

The WHO/UN also held a conference in Beijing in 1995 for the advancement of women’s rights and empowerment for greater participation in society. This conference was called the World Conference on Women, and its goal was to promote gender equality and increase the roles that women could have in the world and its various sectors. The conference identified a lack of equality for women in politics, civil secrosd, the economy, and social and cultural life. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the conference that “it has served as a road map, guiding progress for women and girls.”

The elimination of hunger and malnutrition-

World hunger is an obvious global crisis that has proven difficult and expensive to solve. While solutions have yet to find widespread success in this front, the collaborative efforts between the WHO, the European Union, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and others have worked to create billion-dollar initiatives to combat the food price crises and to help the livelihoods of almost 60 million people across 50 different countries. The initiative helped create agricultural development activities in six countries to help reduce the amount of hungry people worldwide by half.

The reduction in amounts of poverty-stricken people in rural agricultural areas-

The agricultural initiatives set forth by the WHO and collaborative organizations helps poor rural populations to find better success in growing and selling food and increasing their income through low-interest loans and grants. There are currently over 250 of such projects taking place in 97 different countries. It is estimated that these projects have assisted around 410 million people since 1978.

The combating of child mortality rates-

From 1990 to 2011, various UN agencies including the WHO set out to reduce the rates of childhood mortality and found success by reducing the mortality rate in children under five years old from 1 in every 10 children to 1 in every 18 children – almost half. Their initiatives for such a task included oral rehydration therapy, clean water measures, greater sanitation in environments, and numerous health practices that revolved around nutrition and wellness. The rates continue to steadily decline.

Source:  WHO

Source: WHO

The promotion of food safety through consumer protection-

Through policy change, the WHO has set new standards for over 300 food commodities as well as implemented new safety limits for over 3,000 known food contaminants. They’ve set regulations for the processing, transport, and storage of food products and created standards and requirements for food labeling. These practices have helped reduce misinformation and rates of contamination so that consumers can be informed and protected from harmful food products.

The reduction in the rates of drug problems worldwide-

The WHO and other UN organizations work together to combat drug abuse by tackling the problem at both ends. They work to cut off the supply and work to reduce the demand. These efforts have helped cut down rates of drug abuse and drug trafficking instances. Such projects halted a 25-year string of increases in drug abuse rates and worked to begin the decline of such rates. Currently, the main focus lays in high-risk regions for drug cultivation and trafficking such as Afghanistan, Central Asia, and West Africa.

The response to the HIV/AIDS crisis-

Efforts from the WHO and UN helped to counter an epidemic of 35.3 million people affected by HIV/AIDS and helped prevent new infections by adults and children by almost half. These efforts have also helped treat cases of HIV/AIDS and worked to prevent the infections from advancing and leading to death. AIDS-related patient deaths have decreased by over 30% as new antiretroviral treatments have been researched and developed.

The combating of terrorism and its effects-

Many don’t think “health crisis” when they think of terrorism, but the UN’s global strategy to help counter terrorism includes health issues as a result of terrorist actions. With the help of other agencies in the UN, the WHO works to send a message about the world’s tolerance of terrorism and that such acts are unacceptable. A new committee on counter-terrorism was formed and practical measures and procedures were developed to improve the response after such attacks.

The reduction and halting of SARS from turning to a worldwide epidemic-

In the early 2000s, a major global concern was Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which had a massive outbreak in various countries. The WHO worked quickly to respond to the outbreak and provide various avenues of support. Swift and effective response, alerts, and travel advisories together worked to keep SARS localized and prevented it from becoming a global epidemic.

Source:  UNESCO

Source: UNESCO


The effects of the WHO can’t be quantified. There are numbers on lives saved, people treated, campaign success rates, and more; but these numbers don’t tell the whole story. They don’t encompass how education has driven prevention. They don’t tell of the inspiration passed around and the difference that feeling cared about and looked after makes. They don’t speak to the wide-reaching effects that the WHO has had on the world in a positive way. The World Health Organization is responsible for making the world a happier, safer, healthier place. Every day it takes steps towards achieving that goal. The world is a better place for it.

Image source: Flickr