WHO 75: 75 Years in Service of Improving Public Health
05 July 2023
The date of 7 April marks the anniversary of the founding of WHO in 1948.
The first half of the 20th century saw some of the most tragic and destructive global events in human history. Societies have suffered a devastating loss of lives, food scarcity, destroyed public health services, and an unprecedented number of displaced persons.
There were legitimate concerns that epidemic outbreaks would rapidly spread throughout the population, such as the one known as the Spanish flu at the end of the World War I, with estimated deaths ranging from 17 – to 50 million people.
In April 1945, leaders from around the world gathered in San Francisco, United States of America, to establish the United Nations. At the meeting, they also agreed on the creation of another global organisation, specifically devoted to global health rather than global politics, an organisation that would prevent and control disease so that everyone could attain health and wellbeing at the highest possible level.
The World Health Organization (WHO) was established three years later, with its constitution coming into effect on 7 April 1948, marked from then on as World Health Day.
The WHO Charter, or its constitution, states that health is a fundamental human right that every human being is entitled to "without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition" and that "the health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security."
Public health has changed dramatically in the 75 years since the launch of the World Health Organization.
Over the past seven and a half decades, there has been extraordinary progress in protecting people from diseases and destruction, including smallpox eradication, reducing the incidence of polio by 99%, saving millions of lives through childhood immunisation, declines in maternal mortality, and improvement of health and well-being for millions more.
However, the successes so far do not mean that WHO’s work is finished. There are new, critical health threats, such as COVID-19 or climate change- related events, and these are expected to become more frequent and more severe. That is one of the reasons WHO is urging Member States to take action to place health high on the political and development agenda and increase investments in health.
The health workforce is critical. Continuous and increasing investments in education, skills, and decent jobs for health need to be prioritised to meet the rapidly growing demand for health and addressing changing health needs. Without drastic change, a shortage of 10 million health workers is projected by 2030, primarily in low- and middle-income countries.
"We have to work hard at coming together to confront these health threats. This means thinking beyond nationalistic priorities, it means coming together around joint priorities, and most importantly, it means supporting organisations like WHO that work for the collective good," stated Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
One of the actions WHO has achieved, in collaboration with Member States, is taking action to promote health by preventing disease and addressing the root causes of ill health. This resulted that between 2017 and 2022, 133 governments increased an existing or introduced a new tax on products that harm health, such as tobacco and sugary drinks.
What’s in the future for WHO?
At this year’s Seventy-sixth World Health Assembly, the UN agency’s decision-making body, Dr Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, warned that the end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency is not the end of COVID-19 as a global health threat, urging countries to prioritise primary healthcare as the foundation of universal health coverage.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that protecting health is fundamental to our economies, societies, security and stability," said the WHO Director-General.
Learning from the worst pandemic in recent history, WHO stands ready to support the world's countries as they negotiate a pandemic accord, the revision of the International Health Regulations (2005), and other financial, governance, and operational initiatives to prepare the world for future pandemics.
Over the past five years, WHO has invested in science and digital health, creating a science division. The investment has come at the time when science is under sustained attack every day. Disseminating evidence-based and scientifically underpinned information is of the utmost importance. Countries must protect the public from misinformation and disinformation, the results of such actions are still alive in our minds and even in our lives still. The future of health depends on how well all of us, together, power health through science, research, innovation, data, digital technologies and partnerships.
"The history of WHO demonstrates what is possible when nations come together for a common purpose," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has led the organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic.