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World Health Organization

Founded in 1948, the World Health Organization leads the world alliance for health for all. A specialized agency of the United Nations with 191 Member Sates, WHO promotes technical cooperation for health among nations, carries out programmes to control and eradicate disease, and strives to improve the quality of human life.

WHO has four main functions:

  • to give worldwide guidance in the field of health
  • to set global standards for health
  • to cooperate with governments in strengthening national health programmes
  • to develop and transfer appropriate health technology, information and standards

The WHO definition of health:

'Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'

A major event in WHO's first fifty years was the global eradication of smallpox. This disease scarred and killed millions before being officially declared eradicated in 1980. Eradication resulted in a huge reduction in human suffering and great financial savings. The United States alone saves its entire investment in the eradication programme every month because costly protection measures are no longer needed.

Other diseases such as polio and guinea-worm disease are on the threshold of eradication and, thanks to new and better methods of treatment, leprosy is also being overcome.

But, as well as fighting infectious diseases, WHO is a key player in promoting primary health care, delivering essential drugs, making cities healthier, building partnerships for health, promoting healthy lifestyles and environments to achieve health for all.

Health Promotion and the Environment

WHO has initiated successful health promotion projects, such as Healthy Cities and Villages, Healthy Islands and Health-Promoting Schools, Hospitals and Work Sites. Some projects target vulnerable populations such as the elderly and women. Others focus on encouraging healthy lifestyles, sexual health and tobacco-free societies.

The impact of the environment on health is a high priority for WHO. One example is access to safe drinking water. WHO puts the highest priority on the development of community water supplies and sanitation facilities with the AFRICA 2000 initiative. WHO is deeply concerned with prevention and control of ionising radiation so dramatically highlighted by the Chernobyl nuclear accident. Other issues such as the health effects of electromagnetic fields and the increasing depletion of the ozone layer, are of major concern.

WHO: A Motor for Health Research

Working with its partners in health research, WHO gathers current data on conditions and needs, particularly in developing countries. These range from the evaluation of school health programmes, to epidemiological research in remote tropical forests, to monitoring the progress of genetic engineering in the laboratory.

WHO's tropical disease research programme is tackling insecticide resistance and the resistance of the malaria parasite in humans to the most commonly-used drugs.

In the field of health management, research includes studies into the cost-effectiveness of health care. Research also helps to improve national and international epidemiological surveillance, and to develop preventive strategies for new and emerging diseases that integrate laboratory discoveries with the latest information from the field.

Scientific and Ethical Action

Improved health is not achieved just with financial resources and high technology. It requires a social conscience and a commitment to share the advances of health science throughout society.

Every field of health raises ethical questions concerning sex, birth, confidentiality and personal safety. WHO helps safeguard ethical standards by insisting, for example, that consensus must be reached on what is acceptable in cloning, that there is informed consent when carrying out experiments with humans, or estimating how much risk should be borne by volunteers testing the efficacy of drugs or vaccines. WHO brings together the world's experts to reach consensus on such key issues.

Challenges for the Future

Much of the world has benefited from better health in the 50 years since WHO was founded. But the need for WHO is greater than ever.

Cholera and malaria were major health priorities in 1948; unfortunately, after a period of decline, both are on the increase again, and so remain a problem. There are other examples of so-called 're-emerging' diseases and, to make matters worse, some medicines and antibiotics are becoming less effective.

The Next 50 Years - Health for all in the 21st Century

A new global health policy to meet future health challenges has been developed by the World Health Organization in consultation with all its national and international partners.

Health for All (HFA) seeks to create the conditions where people have, as a fundamental human right, the opportunity to reach and maintain the highest attainable level of health. The vision of a renewed HFA policy builds on the WHO Constitution, the experience of the past and the needs of the future.

Fifty years may seem a long time to individuals, but it is a short spell in human history. For two centuries it was known that smallpox could be prevented, but only in the 20th Century was a coalition organised by WHO able to do something definitive about it. With political will, commitment and a willingness to work together, there is no reason why this success cannot be continued.

With thanks to
Public Relations Department
World Health Organization
Geneva, Switzerland

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