In 1948, countries came together to heal a world that had been bloodied by war, distrust, and pain. The physical and mental wellbeing of people was elevated to a new level, and a global pact and purpose were forged to safeguard and advance health for all. This lofty sentiment became a practical reality with the entry into force of the Constitution of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its founding as the specialized United Nations agency dedicated to promoting human health.
Today, as WHO celebrates its 75th anniversary year from World Health Day on April 7, its mandate and convening ability remain as vital as ever. However, the world needs a renewal of this commitment to put the health of all people first, from our grandparents to our children born today and in the future.
COVID-19, conflict, climate change, and commercial causes of ill-health, like unhealthy foods and tobacco, offer real reminders of how precarious our lives are. Without constant commitment to advancing our collective wellbeing, the fortunes of vulnerable communities worldwide will remain at risk.
WHO’s Constitution states that “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”. This has guided WHO’s work to promote, provide, and protect health for all. There have been many achievements along the way, including the eradication of smallpox and near-elimination of five tropical diseases. WHO has also supported countries to adopt a landmark treaty on tobacco control, regulate aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes, and report on health emergencies with the potential of global spread.
However, great challenges remain. COVID-19 has shown how we are only as safe from pandemic threats as the least prepared nation. Too many people lack access to quality, affordable health services, instead suffering from preventable or treatable ill-health. Modern concerns compound this, like the impacts of the climate crisis, rampant air pollution, and the wanton misinformation and disinformation bedeviling people’s health choices.
To meet these challenges, WHO has been changing and adapting to deliver better today and for the next 75 years. Its work focuses on improving the level of health of all people, ensuring everyone has equitable access to quality, affordable health services, protecting the world against novel and known pathogens, empowering science and scientific information to support good health, and strengthening WHO to meet today’s and tomorrow’s demands.
In COVID’s wake, WHO is supporting countries negotiating an historic pandemic accord, rooted in the WHO Constitution, to prevent and respond to future pandemic threats collectively. Nations are also amending the International Health Regulations to make them relevant to a post-COVID world, and strengthening WHO’s financial, governance, and operational base for a safer and healthier world.
The lifeblood of WHO’s work is science and evidence. Data-driven guidance remains core work, helping WHO and countries invest resources where health needs are greatest. Access to evidence-based advice also helps people make sound health choices. This is critical today because, as COVID has shown, misinformation and disinformation have made decision-making even harder and, in extreme cases, deadly.
WHO has been transforming its operations to effectively implement work on all these fronts, and more, with a clear-eyed focus on delivering impact at the community level. Today, 75 years later, and after a new virus showed how vulnerable the world remains, the need for WHO is as vital now as ever. If the organization had not been created all those years ago, we would have to create it today. On WHO’s birthday, we thank all countries and partners for their commitment to laying WHO’s foundations in 1948 and continuing to strengthen them for a healthier, safer, and fairer future for all.