Written by Joanna Hughes

It's a big day for the World Health Organization (WHO). Not only is the organization celebrating its 70th anniversary, but April 7 is also the annual observation of World Health Day, which promotes global health awareness.

We can think of no better time to highlight the vital work of WHO than now. Read on to learn more about how WHO came into being, with why it is more important than ever decades after its inception, and how you can make a difference by becoming a part of it. 

How WHO Began

In 1945, representatives from 50 countries convened in San Francisco to draw up the United Nations Charter. One agreed upon priority? Setting up a global health organization. Three years later, WHO’s constitution came into force in Geneva, Switzerland. Its purpose?  To coordinate health affairs within the UN with initial focus areas including malaria, tuberculosis, venereal diseases and other communicable diseases, as well as women and children’s health, nutrition and sanitation.

Simple Mission, Significant Impact

As the “global guardian of public health,” WHO has since grown to comprise more than 7,000 people working in 150 country headquarters with the goal of “build[ing] a better, healthier future for people all over the world.”  And while its primary role may sound simple -- to direct and coordinate international health within the UN system -- its responsibilities and functions are both manifold and complex.  

Once devoting the majority of its efforts to fighting the major communicable diseases, WHO has evolved to take on new challenges -- particularly noncommunicable diseases, which now account for 70 percent of all global deaths. Says Who Senior Programme Advisor, Dr. JoAnne Epping-Jordan, “There is simply no justification for chronic diseases to continue to take millions of lives prematurely each year when the understanding of how to prevent these deaths is available now. We must stop the global epidemic of chronic disease.”

Other main areas of work include health systems; promoting health through the life course; corporate services; and preparedness, surveillance and response. In its 70-year history, WHO has led powerful initiatives aimed at everything from eradicating smallpox to fighting tobacco use.

Reports WHO of its success, “Globally, life expectancy has increased by 25 years since WHO was established. Some of the biggest health gains are seen among children under-5: in 2016, 6 million fewer children died before they reached their fifth birthday than in 1990. Smallpox has been defeated and polio is on the verge of eradication. Many countries have successfully eliminated measles, malaria and debilitating tropical diseases like guinea worm and elephantiasis, as well as mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis….Bold new WHO recommendations for earlier, simpler treatment, combined with efforts to facilitate access to cheaper generic medicines, have helped 21 million people get life-saving treatment for HIV. The plight of more than 300 million people suffering from chronic hepatitis B and C infections is finally gaining global attention. And innovative partnerships have produced effective vaccines against meningitis and Ebola, as well as the world’s first ever malaria vaccine.”

The Universal Health Care Imperative

WHO also established Health for All (HFA) and co-sponsored the International Conference on Primary Health Care (PHC), which together call for new approaches to standard health care with principles of equity, social-justice, self-reliance, community involvement, decentralization, and affordability at the forefront.

This is consistent with World Health Day 2018’s key message: That no one should ever choose between health and other life necessities. “Universal” in UHC means ‘for all’ without discrimination, leaving no one behind. Everyone everywhere has a right to benefit from health services they need without falling into poverty when using them,” says WHO.

Will You Join WHO?

If your goal is to make a difference while working in the fast-paced and critical field of healthcare, a job with WHO may be right for you. In addition to employing a huge network of doctors, WHO also needs scientists and epidemiologists; public health specialists; administrators; financial experts; and people with skills in health statistics, economics, and emergency relief.

WHO’s Internship Programme also offers an exciting spectrum of opportunities for graduate and postgraduate students from around the world looking to help advance public health while enriching their own knowledge and experience.  

Every day across the globe, health emergencies are underway. From providing vaccinations for the raging yellow fever outbreak in Brazil to making mental health services accessible to the Syrian population, WHO is on the scene, and will continue to be so as new health emergencies emerge. Now that we’ve looked at WHO’s past, one question remains: WIll you be part of its future?

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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