A child undergoes an x-ray at the Indian Field Hospital, Levels I and II, in Malakal.

The Global guardian of public health

The United Nations, since its inception, has been actively involved in promoting and protecting good health worldwide. Leading that effort within the UN system is the World Health Organization (WHO), whose constitution came into force on 7 April 1948 - a date we now celebrate every year as World Health Day. At the outset, it was decided that WHO’s top priorities would be malaria, women’s and children’s healthtuberculosis, venereal disease, nutrition and environmental pollution. Many of those remain on WHO’s agenda today, in addition to such relatively new diseases as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, cancer and emerging diseases such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Ebola or Zika virus.

In 1948, WHO took over the responsibility for the International Classification of Diseases, which has become the international standard for defining and reporting diseases and health conditions. Since its creation WHO has contributed to many historic achievements in global public health work. Some of them are: 

  • Antibiotics: (1950) The great era of discovery of present-day antibiotics begins, and WHO begins advising countries on their responsible use.
  • Polio: (1988) The Global Polio Eradication Initiative 1988 is established at a time when polio paralyzed more than 350 000 people a year. Since then, polio cases have decreased by more than 99% because of immunization against the disease worldwide.​
  • Small Pox: (1979) Following an ambitious 12-year global vaccination campaign led by WHO, smallpox is eradicated.
  • Tuberculosis: (1995) The strategy for reducing the toll of tuberculosis (TB) is launched. At the end of 2013, more than 37 million lives had been saved through TB diagnosis and treatment under this strategy.
  • AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria: (2001) The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a new partnership and funding mechanism initially hosted by WHO, is created in collaboration with other UN agencies and major donors.
  • Children's mortality: (2006) The number of children who die before their fifth birthday declines below 10 million for the first time in recent history.
  • Heart Disease, diabetes, cancer:  (2012) For the first time WHO Member States set global targets to prevent and control heart disease, diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease and other noncommunicable diseases
  • Ebola virus outbreak: (2014) The biggest outbreak of Ebola virus disease ever experienced in the world strikes West Africa. The WHO Secretariat activates an unprecedented response to the outbreak, deploying thousands of experts and medical equipment; mobilizing foreign medical teams and coordinating creation of mobile laboratories and treatment centres. In 2016 WHO announces zero cases of Ebola in West Africa, but warns that flare-ups of the disease are likely to continue and that countries in the region need to remain vigilant and prepared


WHO staff, who include medical doctors, public health specialists, scientists and epidemiologists and other experts are at work on the ground in 150 countries worldwide. They advise ministries of health on technical issues and provide assistance on prevention, treatment and care services throughout the health sector. 

WHO interventions cover all areas of the global health-care spectrum, including crisis intervention and the response to humanitarian emergencies; establishing International Health Regulations, which countries must follow to identify disease outbreaks and stop them from spreading; preventing chronic diseases; and working to achieve the health-related  Sustainable Development Goals.

World Health Statistics: Monitoring health for the SDG’s

While the Millennium Development Goals focused on a narrow set of disease-specific health targets for 2015, The Sustainable Development Goals look to 2030 and are far broader in scope. For example, the SDGs include a broad health goal, “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”, and call for achieving universal health coverage

The World Health Statistics 2018, WHO’s annual snapshot of the state of the world’s health, highlights that while remarkable progress towards the SDGs has been made in some areas, in other areas progress has stalled and the gains that have been made could easily be lost. The latest data available shows that:

  • Less than half the people in the world today get all of the health services they need.
  • In 2010, almost 100 million people were pushed into extreme poverty because they had to pay for health services out of their own pockets.
  • 13 million people die every year before the age of 70 from cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes and cancer – most in low and middle-income countries.
  • Every day in 2016, 15,000 children died before reaching their fifth birthday.

Other UN Agencies and Funds involved in health

It would be misleading to suggest that the entire work of the UN system in support of global health rests with the WHO. On the contrary, many members of the UN family are engaged in this critical task. Many health-related matters are addressed directly by the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, as well as through the efforts of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS); the work of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in support of reproductive, adolescent and maternal health; and the health-related activities of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

UN observances related to health

In addition to World Health Day (7 April), annual international observances relating to health, as proclaimed by the General Assembly, include World Water Day (22 March), World Autism Awareness Day (2 April), World No-Tobacco Day (31 May), the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (26 June), World Mental Health Day (10 October), World Diabetes Day (14 November) and World AIDS Day (1 December).



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