Established on April 7, 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) is an agency of the United Nations (UN), with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It inherited the mandate and also the resources of its predecessor, the Health Organization, which had been an agency of the League of Nations. At the International Health Conference that took place in mid-1946, an interim commission had been established, and the UN General Assembly agreed on the transfer of these operations to the WHO. The WHO agenda involves six objectives: promoting development; fostering health security; strengthening health systems; harnessing research, information, and evidence; enhancing partnerships; and improving performance. Its symbol is the official United Nations emblem with the rod of Asclepius, the traditional symbol of medicine, and it uses Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish as its official languages.
The first director-general of the WHO was Brock Chisholm from Canada, who remained in office until 1953. The second director-general, Marcolino Gomes Candau from Brazil, held office from 1953 until 1973. During the tenure of these first two directors-general, the WHO was involved in operating throughout the world in the eradication of diseases such as malaria and polio. It was also heavily involved in the campaign against smallpox, with mass inoculations around the world that saw the WHO being able, in 1980, to finally declare that the disease had been totally eradicated, making it the first disease ever to be totally eliminated by human work. The WHO is now planning to concentrate on polio.
The next five directors-general were Halfdan T. Mahler from Denmark (1973–88), Hiroshi Nakajima from Japan (1988–98), Gro Harlem Brundtland from Norway (1998–03), Lee Jong-wook from South Korea (2003–06), and Anders Nordström from Sweden (2006). The current director-general is Margaret Chan from Hong Kong, who took up the position on January 4, 2007.
The role of the directors-general has been to continue the advances that led to the eradication of smallpox, and they have worked on helping to reduce the proliferation of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and other diseases and infections through the distribution of vaccines and greater health education. They are also involved in undertaking and sponsoring clinical trials on medical procedures and medication including problems that might arise from electromagnetism from the use of cell phones and the increasing prevalence of obesity in the world. Other ongoing projects of the WHO include the International Classification of Diseases with the provision of a database to assist doctors, other medical practitioners, and patients. In addition, the WHO has produced numerous reports on the influence of tobacco smoking on disease and other epidemiological studies.
Currently, there are 193 member states in the WHO, which includes all UN member states with the exception of Liechtenstein. It also has a few entities with observer status such as the Holy See (Vatican City) and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Niue and Cook Islands, even though they are not independent (both are self-governing in association with New Zealand), are members of the WHO. For administrative purposes, the WHO is divided into six regions: Africa, run from Brazzaville, Congo; the Americas, run from Washington, D.C.; the Eastern Mediterranean, run from Cairo, Egypt; Europe, run from Copenhagen, Denmark; Southeast Asia, run from New Delhi, India; and the Western Pacific, run from Manila, the Philippines.
The importance of the WHO in the global economy can be measured for a number of reasons. On the very basic level, the WHO purchases vast supplies of pharmaceuticals and clinical equipment, employing directly or indirectly tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, researchers, and other medical industry professionals who study, document, and tabulate problems, and also treat people in the form of inoculations or provide other treatment. This is particularly important in poorer countries, especially in Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America where much of the provision of preventive medical care comes from the WHO. The provision of WHO statistical information system (WHOSIS) provides access to 70 core indicators on mortality, risk factors, and health systems, among other things, which has helped planning for the problems facing particular places. Much of this information is now available on the WHO internet site along with the global health atlas and extensive regional statistics.
However, the role of the WHO is far more important, as it helps promote particular forms of healthcare, either through its actions or its reports. These have been influential in providing the basis for medical research around the world and also detailing guidelines that many countries have followed in the introduction of preventive campaigns. Although such activities should not be measured in economic terms, the better health of so many people around the world has vastly helped with the global economy and increased the world population and provided hope to so many previously impoverished people. Indeed, the WHO has seen itself as being in the forefront of promoting development around the world—health being an important measure of socioeconomic progress— and as part of the Millennium Development Goals, the treatment of chronic diseases and also many tropical diseases is important in helping many poor countries in the world.
- Cath Senker, World Health Organization (Hodder Wayland, 2005);
- Simon, “Bush Supersizes Effort to Weaken the World Health Organization,” International Journal of Health Services: Planning, Administration, Evaluation (v.35/2, 2005);
- Patricia Wood, World Health Organization: A Brief Summary of Its Work (Australian Government Publishing Service, 1988);
- World Health Organization, Four Decades of Achievement: Highlights of the Work of WHO (World Health Organization, 1988);
- World Health Organization, The World Health Organization: A Decade of Health Development in South-East Asia 1968–1977 (Regional Office for South-East Asia, WHO, 1978);
- World Health Organization, www.who.org (cited March 2009).
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