The World Health Organization (WHO), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, is an international group of one hundred and ninety-one member states devoted to the maintenance and improvement of the health of all people throughout the world. Member states are divided into six geographic regions: Southeast Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Americas, Africa, the Western Pacific, and Europe. The director general of the organization oversees the mission to preserve, maintain, and improve health through education, nutritional support, health activities, management of disease outbreaks, response to emergencies, and funding programs.
History and Mission
In 1945, three physicians, Drs. Szeming Sze of China, Karl Evang of Norway, and Geraldo de Paula Souza of Brazil, proposed the formulation of a single health organization that would address the health needs of the world’s people. Their joint declaration to establish an international health organization was approved when the constitution of the WHO was adopted in 1946.
The preamble to the constitution defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The initial priorities for world health care included initiatives to address malaria , maternal and child health, tuberculosis , venereal diseases, nutrition and environmental sanitation, public health administration, parasitic diseases, viral diseases , mental health, and other activities.
The WHO provides preventive health and improvement of nutritional status through programs that address:
- Health education
- Food, food safety, and nutrition
- Safe water and basic sanitation
- Prevention and control of local endemic diseases
- Treatment of common diseases and injuries
- Provision of essential drugs.
Special programs include the Applied Nutrition Program, which began in 1960 and attempts to improve the nutritional health of people worldwide. Strategic action plans have been developed to promote breastfeeding, support production of foods that improve local diets, distribute supplementary foods, and provide health education. These plans include multiple factors that address the specific needs of each region. The targets of action to accomplish the plans are nutritonal education, safe diets, and healthy choices for living.
WHO and SARS
As Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out in China in 2002, some of the earliest alerts were provided by the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), an automated system that WHO uses to scan Web sites and electronic discussion groups for signs of disease outbreaks that could lead to epidemics. Another WHO system, the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GORAN) links 112 existing networks to monitor and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases. As SARS came to light, WHO drew on these resources to establish a virtual network of eleven leading laboratories. Using a shared Web site and daily teleconferences to pool information and coordinate activities, they worked to identify the cause of the disease and develop a diagnostic test. WHO’s quick response in issuing global alerts and travel advisories and in coordinating international resources have been credited with helping to efficiently contain the spread of the disease.
Food safety is another major focus of WHO special programs. Through the Food Safety Program, contaminants of water and food are identified, with efforts targeted at providing clean sources of food and/or water. Environmental health centers serve as the clearinghouse for activities to support
In May 2002, 192 nations gathered as the World Health Organization held its 55th annual World Health Assembly. One of the key resolutions to emerge from the assembly was a commitment to help poorer nations obtain needed medicines at discounted rates.
[Copyright World Health Organization (WHO)/P. Virot]
improvement ofundernutritionof infants, deficiencies of iodine, vitamin A, and thiamine;anemia, and other nutritional concerns.
Together with UNICEF, the WHO has been successful in overseeing programs to promote breastfeeding and improve the health and nutritional status of pregnant women, infants, and mothers with young children. Hospitals and regional centers have played an important part in the success of this endeavor.
Finally, programs aimed at improving the land and planting crops such as cereals, rice, corn, and potatoes have been introduced in all regions. These programs include production of nutritionally adequate foods to feed those in each region, while also providing education and work opportunities for the people of each region.
Sze, Seming (1982). The Origins of the World Health Organization: A Personal Memoir 1945–1948. Boca Raton, FL: LISZ.
Sze, Szeming (1988). “WHO: From Small Beginnings.” World Health Forum 9(1):29–34.
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