This year’s World Health Day, April 7, marks the 75th anniversary of the World Health Organization.
The WHO was founded in 1948, following World War II and the creation of the United Nations, for the purpose of promoting public health, keeping the world safe from future pandemics, and serving at-risk people groups.
World Health Day was established in 1950 to create an annual themed event that would highlight current health care issues facing the global population. It has become a time to reflect upon the success of public global health initiatives.
This year’s World Health Day theme is “Health for All.” A quick reading of the theme implies universal health care, but the implications of the theme in the context of the WHO and the history of public health goes way beyond a concern for social justice.
The WHO’s story begins in the early 1800’s with the establishment of effective trade routes all over the globe.
With the increase in the speed of travel came the spread of disease such that the epidemics of 1830 and 1847 claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Europeans due to cholera which had its origins somewhere in the far East.
This led to the establishment of the first International Sanitary Conference in Paris in 1851 in an effort to establish quarantine standards to prevent the spread of disease.
Unfortunately, in the mid-19th century, the cause of cholera was unknown, and the different partnering nations bought their own political agendas and infighting to the table.
It was not until 1892 that the member states of the ISC could set aside their political differences and establish a plan for the control and management of cholera, which was successfully implemented within five years.
The eventual success of the ISC in Europe encouraged the establishment of the International Sanitary Bureau in the Americas in 1902. The ISC ultimately became the Pan American Health Organization.
Full-scale global public health efforts were first codified in the establishment of the Health Organization of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1919.
The spirit of international cooperation ultimately led the ISC in 1926 to go beyond cholera and to produce a plan and to provide resources for battling smallpox and typhus on a global scale.
Unfortunately, the ISC met for the last time in 1938 and fell into disrepair due to the outbreak of World War II.
Almost immediately after the war, and with the establishment of the United Nations, there was a call for a new international organization to address global health concerns. Therefore, in 1945, the U.N. Conference on International Organizations met in San Francisco and voted to establish a global health organization.
Finally, in 1948, the first World Health Assembly met (almost 100 years after the original ISC was established) to set its charter and identify malaria, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, maternal and child health, nutrition and sanitation as its key priorities.
It was in 1958, in the middle of the Cold War, when the WHO really made a name for itself when Viktor Zhdanov, the Deputy Minister of Health for the former USSR, insisted that the WHO launch the smallpox eradication project.
Twenty-one years later, the WHO proudly declared the hideous scourge eradicated, making smallpox the only disease in human history to be destroyed by a global human initiative.
The 1960s witnessed the WHO promoting massive global initiatives to fight cholera in Asia and the Pacific, malaria in Africa, and endemic syphilis and leprosy throughout countless underdeveloped countries.
Things really picked up speed when, in 1974, the WHO launched the Expanded Program on Immunization that set out to vaccinate children worldwide for common diseases like diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles and poliomyelitis. The initiative would ultimately be associated with the WHO vaccination records often called yellow cards.
The Safe Motherhood Initiative launched in 1987, which is still striving to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality by 50%.
These successes encouraged the WHO, in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Rotary Foundation, to embark on the Polio Eradication project in 1988 and to establish the End TB Strategy in 2014 with the stated goal of reducing tuberculosis deaths by 95% before 2023.
The WHO has historically been at the forefront in the containment and treatment of a host of communicable diseases, ranging from cholera and malaria to HIV, Ebola, Zika and monkey pox.
However, the WHO’s work goes way beyond just fighting communicable disease, as it also addresses sanitation, clean water, maternal and fetal mortality, drug shortages, and disease relief on a global scale.
If nothing else, the history of global public health and the WHO has taught us two things.
First, when the nations of the world set aside our respective political and economic agendas, we can and will impact the quality of global health both for at risk demographics and affluent nations; but this only works if we all work together.
Second, unless all people are protected, all people are at risk. Whether it be cholera in 1832 or the novel coronavirus in 2019, when diseases arise anywhere, they can, due to our global marketplace, travel anywhere and place everyone at risk.
For most of a century, the WHO has stood at the floodgates, holding back the tidal waves of disease and illness.
Therefore, join me in recognizing the 194 member states, regional and local charters which make up the WHO, as they continue their mission to ensure every human being has access to adequate health care.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series this week for World Health Day (April 7).
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.