The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) that specializes in international cooperation for improved public health conditions. Since its inception in 1948, the WHO has worked to promote “the highest possible level of health” for people around the globe.
Conditions Leading to the Establishment of the WHO
The rapid development of trade and travel between the East and the West in the 1800s led to devastating outbreaks of cholera and other epidemic diseases. In response to the tens of thousands of Europeans killed by cholera in 1830 and 1847, the first International Sanitary Conference convened in Paris in 1851.
Though little was accomplished to combat epidemics like cholera, this convention set a precedent for international cooperation for disease prevention and control. It took more than 50 years, but the International Sanitary Bureau was finally established in 1902. This was followed by the Health Organization of the League of Nations in 1919.
These organizations sought to control smallpox, typhus, and cholera, but World War II interrupted their priorities. It wasn’t until the end of World War Ii and the development of the United Nations that leaders voted to establish a new international health organization. By 1948, the World Health Organization was formed and held its first World Health Assembly in Geneva.
The WHO immediately established its top priorities, which included the prevention and control of malaria, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases, as well as the support of maternal and child health, sanitary engineering, and nutrition.
Most Notable WHO Activities Since 1948
As part of its mission to prevent and control disease, the World Health Organization has committed itself to major global initiatives over the past decades.
In 1958, for example, the WHO led a smallpox eradication program. It was able to reduce the total number of smallpox infections until the final confirmed case occurred in Somalia in 1977. In the 1970s the WHO’s Expanded Program of Research, Development, and Research Training in Human Reproduction shed light on fertility regulation and birth control methods. This helped women and couples achieve family planning that was previously unavailable.
The World Health Organization is also responsible for the Expanded Program of Immunization that began in 1974. This initiative aimed to vaccinate children worldwide against the most dangerous diseases: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, poliomyelitis, and tuberculosis. Finally, in 1993, the WHO initiated the joint UN program on HIV/AIDS as the epidemic swept across the globe.
The WHO’s Core Priorities From 2014 to 2019
Every few years, the World Health Organization updates its leadership priorities in response to global and local crises. Between 2014 and 2019, the WHO sought to achieve the following goals:
- Assist countries that seek progress toward universal health coverage
- Help countries establish capacity to adhere to International Health Regulations
- Increase access to essential and high-quality medical products
- Address the role of social, economic, and environmental factors in public health
- Coordinate responses to noncommunicable diseases
- Promote public health and wellness in keeping with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals
Now, in 2020, the WHO is focused largely on the Coronavirus pandemic while simultaneously maintaining its standard goals of ambitious health and development.