In the run-up to the United Nations (UN) Day on October 24th and as part of The CSR Journal’s new UN-Agencies series, let us explore World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations specialized agency for Health.
Founded in 1948, the headquarters of the WHO is situated in Geneva, Switzerland. The agency has 194 Member States, 150 country offices and six regional offices. WHO is an inter-governmental organization and works in collaboration with its member states usually through the Ministries of Health. It provides leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends. It began functioning on April 7, 1948 – a date now being celebrated every year as World Health Day.
Objectives of World Health Organisation
1. To act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.
2. 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.
3. To provide assistance to the Governments, upon request, in strengthening health services.
4. To promote cooperation among scientific and professional groups which contribute to the advancement of health.
WHO’s Contribution to World
The country offices are WHO’s primary contact points with governments. They provide technical support on health matters, share relevant global standards and guidelines, and relay government requests and requirements to other levels of WHO. They also inform and follow up with the host government on reports of disease outbreaks outside the country. They provide advice and guidance on public health to other UN agency offices in-country.
In addition to governments, WHO also coordinates with other UN agencies, donors, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. The benefits of WHO’s international health work are reaped by all countries, including the most developed. For example, all nations have benefited from their contributions to the WHO programs that led to the global eradication of smallpox and to promote better and cheaper ways of controlling tuberculosis.
The organization believes that immunization, which prevents the six major communicable diseases of childhood—diphtheria, measles, poliomyelitis, tetanus, tuberculosis, and whooping cough—should be available to all children who need it. WHO is leading a worldwide campaign to provide effective immunization for all children in cooperation with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
During its first decade of operations (1948-58), the WHO focused major attention on specific infectious diseases afflicting millions of people in the developing countries. These included malaria, yaws, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases. There was also a high priority for maternal and child health services, for environmental sanitation (especially safe water), and for standardization of drugs and vaccines. In these years, WHO developed close working relationships with other UN agencies.
The period (1958 to 68) was much influenced by the national liberation in Africa of several former colonies, which became voting members of the Organization. In 1960, the departure from the newly independent Democratic Republic of the Congo of nearly all foreign doctors created a massive emergency. Working with the international Red Cross, WHO recruited 200 physicians and other health workers, and established a new fellowship program to enable scores of Congolese “medical assistants” to become fully qualified doctors. In this period, fellowships for health-personnel development became a major WHO strategy in almost all countries.
WHO stimulated and even collaborated with the world chemical industry in the 1960s to develop new insecticides for fighting the vectors of onchocerciasis (“river blindness”) and for treating schistosomiasis. Demonstration that tuberculosis could be effectively treated, without expensive sanatorium care, was a great breakthrough of the late 1950s. Even the mundane standardization of the nomenclature of diseases and causes of death was an important contribution of WHO to international health communications.
The third decade (1968–78) of WHO included the great victory of eradicating smallpox from the earth. In 1967, smallpox was still endemic in thirty-one countries, afflicting between 10 and 15 million people. The work was done by teams of public health workers in all the countries affected, with WHO serving as leader, co-ordinator, and inspiration. Millions of dollars were saved worldwide by this achievement, which overcame various national rivalries and suspicions. The momentum of this great campaign added strength to another drive, for expanding the immunization of the world’s children against six once-ravaging diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles, poliomyelitis, and tuberculosis (with BCG vaccine). After long hesitation for political reasons, in this period WHO finally entered the field of family planning by promoting worldwide research and development on human reproduction. New efforts were also put into the control of malaria and leprosy.
WHO also promoted the training of auxiliary health personnel, such as China’s “barefoot doctors” and India’s traditional birth-attendants. Such training was a sounder investment in most developing countries than preparing physicians for predominantly urban medical practice.
The fourth decade (1978–88) was ushered in by a great world conference of WHO and UNICEF in Alma Ata, a city of the Asiatic part of the Soviet Union. In reaction against excessive attention to high-technology, the Alma Ata conference emphasized the great importance of primary health care, preventive and curative, as the best approach to national health policy. This approach, stressing community participation, appropriate technology, and intersectoral collaboration, became the central pillar of world health policy.
Thirty years after its birth, 134 WHO member-states reaffirmed their commitment to equality, as embodied in the slogan “Health for All.” The provisions of the safe drinking water and adequate excreta disposal for all were the objectives of the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981-90) proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1980 and supported by WHO. In this period, every country was encouraged to develop a list of “essential drugs” for use in all public facilities, instead of the thousands of brand-name products sold in world markets. The WHO’s condemnation of the promotion of artificial infant-formula products in developing countries also attracted widespread attention. The worldwide control of infantile diarrhea with oral rehydration therapy was another great advance, based on very simple principles.
WHO’s Networks for Collaborative Action
A 1995 outbreak of Ebola virus in the Congo, which raged for three months unbeknownst to WHO, revealed a startling lack of global public health surveillance and notification systems. So in 1997, WHO (in collaboration with Canada) rolled out the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), which took advantage of information on the Internet to function as an early warning system for potential epidemics. The WHO supplemented this (GPHIN) in 2000 with the Global Outbreak Alert Response Network (GOARN) to analyze events once they were detected. GOARN linked 120 networks and institutes with the data, laboratories, skills and experience to take action swiftly in a crisis.
According to the WHO, most of the estimated 500000 maternal deaths each year are preventable through family planning—to avoid illegal abortions—and hygienic education of traditional birth-attendants. The WHO has also mounted increasing efforts against cancer, which now takes as many lives in the developing countries as in the affluent ones. The fight against tobacco, the largest single cause of preventable death in both men and women, is part of WHO effort in every country. Disseminating the simple rules of diet, exercise, nonsmoking, prudent use of alcohol, and hygienic working conditions are major objectives of health education in WHO everywhere.
The worldwide epidemic of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) has presented another challenge to WHO in mounting global efforts to stem the spread of this lethal sexually transmitted virus disease. The WHO is working for the introduction of self-testing so that more people living with HIV know their status and can receive treatment.
WHO and India
India became a party to the WHO on 12 January 1948. The agency’s regional office for South East Asia is located in New Delhi.
WHO’s Role in tackling Small Pox in India
In 1967 the total number of smallpox cases recorded in India accounted for nearly 65% of all cases in the world. Of this 26,225 cases died, giving a grim picture of the relentless fight that lay ahead. In 1967, the WHO launched the Intensified Smallpox Eradication Programme. With a coordinated effort by Indian government with the World Health Organization (WHO), smallpox was eradicated in 1977.
WHO’s Role in tackling Polio in India
India began the battle against the disease in response to the WHO’s 1988 Global Polio Eradication Initiative with financial and technical help from World Bank. The Indian Government, in partnership with UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contributed to almost universal awareness of the need to vaccinate all children under five against polio. As a result of these efforts, India was removed from the list of endemic countries in 2014.