The International Sanitary Conferences, originally held on 23 June 1851, were the first predecessors of the 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, and the Office International d'Hygiène Publique were soon founded in 1902 and 1907, respectively. 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.
During the 1945 United Nations Conference on International Organization, Szeming Sze, a delegate from 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 constitution of the World Health Organization was signed by all 51 countries of the United Nations, and by 10 other countries, on 22 July 1946. It thus became the first specialized agency of the United Nations to which every member subscribed. Its constitution formally came into force on the first World Health Day on 7 April 1948, when it was ratified by the 26th member state. The first meeting of the World Health Assembly finished on 24 July 1948, having secured a budget of US$5 million (then GB£1,250,000) for the 1949 year. 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.
In 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. In 1955, the malaria eradication programme was launched, although it was later altered in objective. 1965 saw the first report on diabetes mellitus and the creation of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
In 1958, Viktor Zhdanov, Deputy Minister of Health for the USSR, called on the World Health Assembly to undertake a global initiative to eradicate smallpox, resulting in Resolution WHA11.54. At this point, 2 million people were dying from smallpox every year.
In 1966, the WHO moved its headquarters from the Ariana wing at the Palace of Nations to a newly constructed HQ elsewhere in Geneva.
In 1967, the World Health Organization intensified the global smallpox eradication by contributing $2.4 million annually to the effort 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. Also in 1967, the WHO launched the Special Programme 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.
In 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.
In 1977, the first list of essential medicines was drawn up, and a year later the ambitious goal of "health for all" was declared.
In 1986, the WHO began its global programme on HIV/AIDS. Two years later preventing discrimination against sufferers was attended to and in 1996 UNAIDS was formed.
In 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was established.
In 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. He, did, however, accept that more had to be done to assist maternal health and that progress in this area had been slow.
In 2000, the Stop TB Partnership was created along with the UN's formulation of the Millennium Development Goals. In 2001 the measles initiative was formed, and credited with reducing global deaths from the disease by 68% by 2007. In 2002, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was drawn up to improve the resources available. In 2006, the organization endorsed the world's first official HIV/AIDS Toolkit for Zimbabwe, which formed the basis for a global prevention, treatment and support plan to fight the AIDS pandemic.
The WHO's Constitution states that its objective "is the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health".
The WHO fulfills this objective through its functions as defined in its Constitution: (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.
As of 2012
, the WHO has defined its role in public health as follows:
- 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, catalyzing change, and building sustainable institutional capacity; and
- monitoring the health situation and assessing health trends.
- CRVS (Civil Registration and Vital Statistics) to provide monitoring of vital events (birth, death, wedding, divorce).
The 2012–2013 WHO budget identified 5 areas among which funding was distributed. Two of those five areas related to communicable diseases: the first, to reduce the "health, social and economic burden" of communicable diseases in general; the second to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in particular.
As of 2015, the WHO has worked within the UNAIDS network and strived to involve sections of society other than health to help deal with the economic and social effects of HIV/AIDS. In line with UNAIDS, WHO has set itself the interim task between 2009 and 2015 of reducing the number of those aged 15–24 years who are infected by 50%; reducing new HIV infections in children by 90%; and reducing HIV-related deaths by 25%.
During the 1970s, WHO had dropped its commitment to a global malaria eradication campaign as too ambitious, it retained a strong commitment to malaria control. WHO's Global Malaria Programme works to keep track of malaria cases, and future problems in malaria control schemes. As of 2012, the WHO was to report as to whether RTS,S/AS01, were a viable malaria vaccine. For the time being, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and insecticide sprays are used to prevent the spread of malaria, as are antimalarial drugs – particularly to vulnerable people such as pregnant women and young children.
Between 1990 and 2010, WHO's help has contributed to a 40% decline in the number of deaths from tuberculosis, and since 2005, over 46 million people have been treated and an estimated 7 million lives saved through practices advocated by WHO. These include engaging national governments and their financing, early diagnosis, standardizing treatment, monitoring of the spread and effect of tuberculosis and stabilising the drug supply. It has also recognized the vulnerability of victims of HIV/AIDS to tuberculosis.
In 1988, WHO launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to eradicate polio. It has also been successful in helping to reduce cases by 99% since which partnered WHO with Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), and smaller organizations. As of 2011 , it has been working to immunize young children and prevent the re-emergence of cases in countries declared "polio-free". In 2017, a study was conducted where why Polio Vaccines may not be enough to eradicate the Virus & conduct new technology. Polio is now on the verge of extinction, thanks to a Global Vaccination Drive. the World Health Organization (WHO) stated the eradication programme has saved millions from deadly disease.
Another of the thirteen WHO priority areas is aimed at the prevention and reduction of "disease, disability and premature deaths from chronic noncommunicable diseases, mental disorders, violence and injuries, and visual impairment". The Division of Noncommunicable Diseases for Promoting Health through the Life-course Sexual and Reproductive Health has published the magazine, Entre Nous, across Europe since 1983.
The WHO estimates that 12.6 million people died as a result of living or working in an unhealthy environment in 2012 – this accounts for nearly 1 in 4 of total global deaths. Environmental risk factors, such as air, water and soil pollution, chemical exposures, climate change, and ultraviolet radiation, contribute to more than 100 diseases and injuries. This can result in a number of pollution-related diseases.
Life course and life style
WHO works to "reduce morbidity and mortality and improve health during key stages of life, including pregnancy, childbirth, the neonatal period, childhood and adolescence, and improve sexual and reproductive health and promote active and healthy aging for all individuals".
It also tries to prevent or reduce risk factors for "health conditions associated with use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs and other psychoactive substances, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity and unsafe sex".
The WHO works to improve nutrition, food safety and food security and to ensure this has a positive effect on public health and sustainable development.
Surgery and trauma care
The WHO promotes road safety as a means to reduce traffic-related injuries.
The WHO has also worked on global initiatives in surgery, including emergency and essential surgical care, trauma care, and safe surgery. The WHO Surgical Safety Checklist is in current use worldwide in the effort to improve patient safety.
The World Health Organization's primary objective in natural and man-made emergencies is to coordinate with member states and other stakeholders to "reduce avoidable loss of life and the burden of disease and disability."
On 5 May 2014, WHO announced that the spread of polio was a world health emergency – outbreaks of the disease in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East were considered "extraordinary".
On 8 August 2014, WHO declared that the spread of Ebola was a public health emergency; an outbreak which was believed to have started in Guinea had spread to other nearby countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. The situation in West Africa was considered very serious.
WHO addresses government health policy with two aims: firstly, "to address the underlying social and economic determinants of health through policies and programmes that enhance health equity and integrate pro-poor, gender-responsive, and human rights-based approaches" and secondly "to promote a healthier environment, intensify primary prevention and influence public policies in all sectors so as to address the root causes of environmental threats to health".
The organization develops and promotes the use of evidence-based tools, norms and standards to support member states to inform health policy options. It oversees the implementation of the International Health Regulations, and publishes a series of medical classifications; of these, three are over-reaching "reference classifications": the International Statistical Classification of Diseases (ICD), the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) and the International Classification of Health Interventions (ICHI). Other international policy frameworks produced by WHO include the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (adopted in 1981), Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (adopted in 2003) and the Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel (adopted in 2010).
In terms of health services, WHO looks to improve "governance, financing, staffing and management" and the availability and quality of evidence and research to guide policy. It also strives to "ensure improved access, quality and use of medical products and technologies". WHO – working with donor agencies and national governments – can improve their use of and their reporting about their use of research evidence.
Governance and support
The remaining two of WHO's thirteen identified policy areas relate to the role of WHO itself:
- "to provide leadership, strengthen governance and foster partnership and collaboration with countries, the United Nations system, and other stakeholders in order to fulfill the mandate of WHO in advancing the global health agenda"; and
- "to develop and sustain WHO as a flexible, learning organization, enabling it to carry out its mandate more efficiently and effectively".
The WHO along with the World Bank constitute the core team responsible for administering the International Health Partnership (IHP+). The IHP+ is a group of partner governments, development agencies, civil society and others committed to improving the health of citizens in developing countries. Partners work together to put international principles for aid effectiveness and development co-operation into practice in the health sector.
The organization relies on contributions from renowned scientists and professionals to inform its work, such as the WHO Expert Committee on Biological Standardization, the WHO Expert Committee on Leprosy, and the WHO Study Group on Interprofessional Education & Collaborative Practice.
WHO runs the Alliance for Health Policy and Systems Research, targeted at improving health policy and systems.
WHO also aims to improve access to health research and literature in developing countries such as through the HINARI network.
WHO collaborates with the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, UNITAID, and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to spearhead and fund the development of HIV programs.
WHO created the Civil Society Reference Group on HIV, which brings together other networks that are involved in policy making and the dissemination of guidelines.
WHO, a sector of the United Nations, partners with UNAIDS to contribute to the development of HIV responses in different areas of the world.
WHO facilitates technical partnerships through the Technical Advisory Committee on HIV, which they created to develop WHO guidelines and policies.
Public health education and action
Each year, the organization marks World Health Day and other observances focusing on a specific health promotion topic. World Health Day falls on 7 April each year, timed to match the anniversary of WHO's founding. Recent themes have been vector-borne diseases (2014), healthy ageing (2012) and drug resistance (2011).
The other official global public health campaigns marked by WHO are World Tuberculosis Day, World Immunization Week, World Malaria Day, World No Tobacco Day, World Blood Donor Day, World Hepatitis Day, and World AIDS Day.
As part of the United Nations, the World Health Organization supports work towards the Millennium Development Goals. Of the eight Millennium Development Goals, three – reducing child mortality by two-thirds, to reduce maternal deaths by three-quarters, and to halt and begin to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS – relate directly to WHO's scope; the other five inter-relate and affect world health.
Data handling and publications
The World Health Organization works to provide the needed health and well-being evidence through a variety of data collection platforms, including the World Health Survey covering almost 400,000 respondents from 70 countries, and the Study on Global Aging and Adult Health (SAGE) covering over 50,000 persons over 50 years old in 23 countries. The Country Health Intelligence Portal (CHIP), has also been developed to provide an access point to information about the health services that are available in different countries. The information gathered in this portal is used by the countries to set priorities for future strategies or plans, implement, monitor, and evaluate it.
The WHO has published various tools for measuring and monitoring the capacity of national health systems and health workforces. The Global Health Observatory (GHO) has been the WHO's main portal which provides access to data and analyses for key health themes by monitoring health situations around the globe.
The WHO Assessment Instrument for Mental Health Systems (WHO-AIMS), the WHO Quality Of Life Instrument (WHOQOL), and the Service Availability and Readiness Assessment (SARA) provide guidance for data collection. Collaborative efforts between WHO and other agencies, such as through the Health Metrics Network, also aim to provide sufficient high-quality information to assist governmental decision making. WHO promotes the development of capacities in member states to use and produce research that addresses their national needs, including through the Evidence-Informed Policy Network (EVIPNet). The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO/AMRO) became the first region to develop and pass a policy on research for health approved in September 2009.
On 10 December 2013, a new WHO database, known as
MiNDbank, went online. The database was launched on Human Rights Day, and is part of WHO's QualityRights initiative, which aims to end human rights violations against people with mental health conditions. The new database presents a great deal of information about mental health, substance abuse, disability, human rights, and the different policies, strategies, laws, and service standards being implemented in different countries. It also contains important international documents and information. The database allows visitors to access the health information of WHO member states and other partners. Users can review policies, laws, and strategies and search for the best practices and success stories in the field of mental health.
The WHO regularly publishes a World Health Report, its leading publication, including an expert assessment of a specific global health topic. Other publications of WHO include the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, the Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal (overseen by EMRO), the Human Resources for Health (published in collaboration with BioMed Central), and the Pan American Journal of Public Health (overseen by PAHO/AMRO).
In 2016, the World Health Organization drafted a global health sector strategy on HIV. In the draft, the World Health Organization outlines its commitment to ending the AIDS epidemic by the year 2030 with interim targets for the year 2020. In order to make achievements towards these targets, the draft lists actions that countries and the WHO can take, such as a commitment to universal health coverage, medical accessibility, prevention and eradication of disease, and efforts to educate the public. Some notable points made in the draft include addressing gender inequity where females are nearly twice as likely as men to get infected with HIV and tailoring resources to mobilized regions where the health system may be compromised due to natural disasters, etc. Among the points made, it seems clear that although the prevalence of HIV transmission is declining, there is still a need for resources, health education, and global efforts to end this epidemic.