a group of health workers in protective gear gather around a woman wearing a who vest.

It has been a year of colossal efforts in global health. Countries battled COVID-19, while struggling to keep other health services running. Health care workers have borne the lion’s share of these efforts but often received little recognition. COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments were rolled out, but overwhelmingly in the richest countries, leaving many populations unprotected, especially in lower-income countries. Across other health areas, from diabetes to dementia, there have been both setbacks and hard-won successes. WHO presents the 10 global highlights from 2021.

Women wearing protective gear sit at a table writing with pens

Despite the almost miraculous development of effective vaccines against COVID-19 in 2020, the virus continued to spread and mutate throughout the last year, with much of the blame placed on a lack of effective global collaboration as a key reason for the prolonged pandemic.  UN News highlights the Organization’s work in 2021 to address COVID-19, including the UN-backed programme to help developing countries protect their populations against the virus, and the steps taken to prepare for future global health crises.

Girl draws insulin into a syringe.

A new WHO report shows that close to 7 million deaths could be prevented by 2030 if low- and lower-middle-income countries were to make an additional investment of less than a dollar per person per year in the prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs – including heart disease, diabetes, cancer and respiratory disease – currently cause 70% of deaths around the world. Yet their impact on lower income countries is often underestimated, despite the fact that 85% of premature deaths from NCDs occur in low- and middle-income countries.

masked woman with megaphone moving among crowd

2021 was dominated by two crises that the world could not ignore – COVID-19 and global heating. From unprecedented floods in Germany, to out of control fires in California and Greece, extreme weather increased in intensity and frequency. The pandemic laid bare other inequalities. Rich countries hoarded vaccines and poor countries went without. Global food systems struggled to cope with the twin crises. The digital divide became more pronounced; the pandemic also showed that we can change quickly, but only if we have the resources and the vision. 

Women sort through colourful masks.

COVID-19 demonstrated how quickly an infectious disease can sweep across the world, push health systems to the brink, and upend daily life. COVID-19 is not be the last pandemic humanity will face. As we respond to this health crisis, we need to prepare for the next one. This means scaling-up investments in better monitoring, early detection and rapid response plans in every country — especially the most vulnerable. An outbreak anywhere is a potential pandemic everywhere. This International Day of Epidemic Preparedness, let’s give this issue the focus, attention and investment it deserves.

Woman is filling herself with children

Submit your original short films on health! The WHO invites all independent filmmakers, production companies, public institutions, NGOs, communities, students, and film schools to submit entries - deadline 30 January 2022.

mother and baby lying on blanket

Désir Murielle gave birth to her son, Yves, in a tent on the grounds of Hôpital de Référence Communautaire de l’Asile, which was damaged in the 7.2-magnitude earthquake of 14 August. The hospital is one of 18 damaged or destroyed health facilities receiving support from UNFPA to continue offering reproductive health services in the area most affected by the disaster. Next month, with the support of the Ministry of Health, UNFPA will deploy a fully-fledged mobile emergency obstetric and newborn care (EmONC) unit to handle deliveries and obstetric complications. 

A woman receives an insulin shot in the arm

About 422 million people worldwide have diabetes, the majority living in low-and middle-income countries, and 1.5 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year. Both the number of cases and the prevalence of diabetes have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. For people living with diabetes, access to affordable treatment, including insulin, is critical to their survival. This World Diabetes Day (14 November) aims to remind the world of the globally agreed target to halt the rise in diabetes and obesity by 2025.

Portrait of a boy by a lake

This year’s World Pneumonia Day (12 November) comes during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Pneumonia is the biggest infectious killer on the planet. In 2019 alone, it claimed the lives of 2.5 million, including 672,000 children. Ninety percent of air pollution-related deaths are concentrated in 40 low- and middle-income countries. In many African countries, air pollution contributes to more than 50 percent of all pneumonia deaths. This is a critical moment to support high-burden countries in reducing air pollution-related pneumonia deaths. Every breath counts.

Maria Van Kerkhove looking at her young son through a window.

What is a day like in the life of the epidemiologist heading the global response to COVID-19? For the past 21 months, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove has been working around the clock with thousands of scientists to try to keep all of us safe. In this personal and insightful episode of the podcast Awake at Night, Maria shares her memories of the first moment she became aware of COVID-19 – before most of the world knew it existed – and then she takes us behind the scenes of WHO’s early steps to tackle the crisis. 

WHO Director-General holds up a scroll.

Countries must set ambitious climate commitments if they are to sustain a healthy and green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The WHO COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health, in the lead-up to COP26, spells out the global health community’s prescription for climate action based on research that establishes the many and inseparable links between climate and health. The report is launched at the same time as an open letter, signed by over two thirds of the global health workforce calling for countries to step up climate action.

Composite of black and white portraits

The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that poverty isn’t just about income. Within and across countries, poor and marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of infection rates, economic losses and access to vaccines and other health care imperatives. Understanding the multidimensional nature of poverty can help us design a more resilient recovery that leaves no one behind. And UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) gives us a critical tool to measure and monitor poverty in all its forms.

In less than a year, scientists made multiple vaccines to help combat the Covid-19 pandemic. However some countries are missing out as they do not have equitable access to the vaccines. WHO encourages we work together, to produce and deliver doses to vaccinate 70% of every country by the middle of 2022. But we are in a race against time and we all must do more, faster. No one is safe until we’re all safe. #VaccinEquity

illustration of helping hand gestures

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on people’s mental health. Some groups, including health and other frontline workers, students, people living alone, and those with pre-existing mental health conditions, have been particularly affected. And services for mental, neurological and substance use disorders have been significantly disrupted. Yet there is cause for optimism. Governments from around the world recognize the need to scale up quality mental health services at all levels. Mental health care for all: let’s make it a reality

This music video aims to raise awareness among young Mauritanians and refugees on the dangers of COVID-19 and its impact on the world of work.