World Health Organization

“The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition”.

WHO is a specialized agency within the Charter of the United Nations and was established in 1948 by 61 Governments “for the purpose of co-operation among themselves and with others to promote the health of all people”. The number of Member States has now grown to 191.

WHO represents the culmination of efforts at international health cooperation that started almost 150 years ago. In 1851, the first International Sanitary Conference was initiated to discuss measures against the importation of plague into Europe. Later on, nations joined forces to combat common threats such as yellow fever, cholera, smallpox and typhus. Other landmarks were the establishment of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau in 1902, the Office International d’Hygiène Publique (OIHP) in 1907, and the Health Organization of the League of Nations in 1919. In 1945, Brazil and China suggested the establishment of an international health organization leading to the Constitution of the WHO which was approved in 1946.

The Constitution came into force on 7 April 1948 when the 26th of the 61 Member States who signed, ratified its signature.

WHO’s main functions are:

  • to give worldwide guidance in the field of health;
  • to cooperate with governments to strengthen the planning, management and evaluation of national health programmes;
  • to develop and transfer appropriate health technology, information and standards for human health.

Since the creation of WHO, there have been major accomplishments in global health. Among these are:

  • fighting infectious diseases. For example, millions of children have been saved annually from death and disability, in part due to global immunization programmes
  • providing health services
  • reducing death, increasing life
  • delivering essential drugs and
  • making cities healthier.

Just as WHO eradicated smallpox in 1980, we are at the threshold of elimination of other major diseases in the next few years, such as poliomyelitis, guinea-worm disease and leprosy.

The challenges WHO still faces are:

  • achieving health for all
  • controlling old and new diseases
  • achieving reproductive health for all
  • building partnerships for health and
  • promoting healthy lifestyles and environments.

Source: Health Promotion Glossary (1998), WHO/HPR/HEP/98.1