World Health Organization

A specialized agency of the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO) was founded on April 7, 1948. WHO is chartered to promote technical cooperation for health among nations, to carry out programs to control and eradicate disease, and to improve the quality of human life.

In 1973, the governing World Health Assembly decided that WHO should collaborate with, rather than assist, its member states in developing practical guidelines for national health care systems. As of 1999, WHO had 191 member states.

All countries that are members of the United Nations are eligible to become members of WHO. The World Health Assembly, which meets in May of each year inGeneva, determines the policies of WHO, elects the Director-General, and reviews and approves WHO's budget.

Attempts at international collaboration in the field of public health date back to the mid-19th century. In 1851, the First International Sanitary Conference was held in Paris with the goal of producing an international sanitary convention; unfortunately, it failed. In 1892, however, the International Sanitary Convention was adopted, but it addressed only cholera. The year 1902 sawthe establishment of the International Sanitary Bureau, which now serves as the World Health Organization's regional office for the Americas. In 1907, theOffice International d'Hygeine Publique (OIHP) was established in Paris. TheLeague of Nations, established in 1919, set up a Health Organization to workwith OIHP. The International Sanitary Convention was revised in 1926 to include provisions against typhus and smallpox. The last International Sanitary Convention was held in Paris in 1938. In 1945, the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco unanimously approved a proposalby Brazil and China to establish a new, autonomous, internal health organization, which would become the World Health Organization in 1948.

The four functions of WHO are to provide worldwide guidance in the field of health; to set global health standards; to cooperate with governments in strengthening health programs; and to develop and transfer health technology, information, and standards. WHO defines health as "a state of complete physical,mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease."

WHO works closely with other organizations within the United Nations (UN). WHO has teamed up with UNICEF to promote breast-feeding. Together with UNICEF,UNESCO, the World Bank, and several other UN departments, WHO has participated in a program coordinating the global effort to control the spread of HIV and AIDS. WHO has participated in UN efforts to promote chemical safety, and ithas work to develop an international food standards program.

WHO also maintains close working relationships with organizations not affiliated with the United Nations. An example is its collaboration with Rotary International to work toward the worldwide eradication of polio.

WHO has achieved a number of successes. In 1967, smallpox was endemic in 31 countries. Largely because of the efforts of WHO, this disease has not appeared anywhere in the world since October 1977. It has been estimated that at least 20 million people would have died of smallpox since 1977 had it not been eradicated. One of the first scourges to claim WHO's attention was the crippling and disfiguring disease, yaws. With the support of WHO, 46 million yaws patients had been treated in 49 countries. WHO has sought to eradicate river blindness (onchocerciasis), a parasitic disease of the tropics, by spraying thebreeding sites of the disease-carrying blackflies.

WHO has set as a top priority the eradication of infectious diseases, and itcounts among its achievements the lowering of child mortality from 134 per 1000 live births in 1970 to about 80 in 1995. Other accomplishments include providing health care services, reducing mortality and increasing life expectancy, delivering essential drugs, introducing environmental sanitation measures,and providing guidelines for healthier cities.

Specific targets for the year 2000 include the eradication of dracunculiasis,poliomyelitis, leprosy, neonatal tetanus, Chagas disease, and iodine deficiency disorders.

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