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The Global guardian of public health

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The United Nations, since its inception, has been actively involved in promoting and protecting 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 and Zika virus. WHO is spearheading the international response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic.

In 1948, WHO took 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. 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 per cent 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.

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