As WHO observes its 75th anniversary, the organization is looking beyond the unfinished agenda of child survival to a redeveloped approach, which supports children's optimal growth and development up to age 9. Photo: Antony Robbins/WHO
It’s been 75 years since the World Health Organization embarked on a journey to achieve health care for all. To commemorate the agency’s anniversary, we asked experts and leaders across the United Nations Foundation to reflect on our progress toward a healthier planet — and what can be accomplished when people unite to protect and support each other’s well-being.
Just three years after World War II ended, leaders from 70 countries came together to sign an international pledge to protect global health. Since then, the World Health Organization (WHO) has played a crucial role in eradicating smallpox, reducing maternal mortality, leading the COVID-19 emergency response, and other historic breakthroughs.
“This anniversary belongs to all of us,” WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, told UN Member States at the start of the year. “This is our opportunity to tell our story and imagine our future. … It’s impossible to do justice to the work we are doing around the world. And none of it is possible without the people who make WHO what it is.”
From experts dedicated to beating malaria to leaders who promote cleaner cooking, I spoke with UN Foundation colleagues about health care as a human right and why Health for All — WHO’s rallying cry for World Health Day on April 7 — is a political and social choice.
Dr. Ri Chol Ok goes door to door to bring health care directly to families in a remote area of DPR Korea. In remote areas, children can be particularly vulnerable to diseases and illnesses as they often lack access to routine immunizations and basic health services. Photo: Simon Nazer / UNICEF
When you think of a world where there is Health for All, what does it look like?
Martha Rebour, Executive Director of Shot@Life: To me, it means that children can learn and play, and adults can work and be able to take care of their families. It means household income that would otherwise go to pay for expensive health services can be used to take care of families, or even be saved. Communities can really thrive when resources don’t have to be diverted so much to take care of illness.
Patty Sanchez Bao, Senior Officer for Global Health at the UN Foundation: I grew up in Peru, so I come from a country in which Health for All would mean all people have access to basic primary health care — people living in the capital and people living in the more remote communities in the jungle or the highlands. It means that mothers like myself don’t have to worry about whether their kids will sleep through the night without getting bitten by a mosquito that transmits malaria. As a mother, it always touches me to think about what other children are exposed to in the world, and that they don’t have access to basic diagnostic and treatment tools that could save their lives. Living in America, I don’t have to worry about the same things for my daughter. Health for All means every single child in the world has the same access to care.
"Health for All means every single child in the world has the same access to care."
Patty Sanchez Bao
Senior Officer for Global Health, UN Foundation
Jillene Connors Belopolsky, Chief of Staff and External Affairs for the Clean Cooking Alliance: I see a world where everyone is able to cook their meals using safe, clean-burning stoves and fuels without the risk of breathing toxic smoke or the need to walk for miles to collect firewood from increasingly degraded forests. Unfortunately today, this is not the case for 2.4 billion people, especially women and children, who are reliant on open fires, whose pollution causes harm to their health, environment, and the climate.
In Suriname, Creuza A. Lopes Camargo tests her son Gabriel for COVID-19 using a rapid test. Due to the availability of COVID-19 tests and trained community health workers, the family was able to identify the infection early and stop it from spreading to family and friends. Photo: Timothy Henny/Slingshot / UNICEF
The world has witnessed many public health successes because people worked together. What’s the next public health win you’d like to see global cooperation achieve?
Elizabeth Thrush, Senior Officer for Polio & Immunization Advocacy at the UN Foundation: There is so much potential in harnessing global cooperation. Look at how the world came together to eradicate smallpox and how close we are to eradicating polio. While we are 99.99% of the way there, my goal is to see eradication to the finish line. And then I’d like to have those lessons learned from polio eradication — the infrastructure and all of the tactics to get to the last mile and reach children in the most vulnerable places — used to respond to the next disease, or used to eliminate measles, or used to prevent future pandemics.
Emile Dawisha, Senior Officer of Communications & Digital Media, United to Beat Malaria: Just this century, the mortality rate for malaria has been cut in half. Consider that malaria is an ancient disease that has been plaguing humankind for 10,000 years. That in itself is an incredible milestone. We really do feel like we can achieve malaria eradication in our lifetime. And the impact would not only be felt in the tens of millions of lives saved, but it also would unlock $2 trillion in economic benefit.
What will it take to make Health for All a reality?
Molly Moss, Senior Policy Associate for Global Health at the UN Foundation: There is a broad set of health workers — whether in labs working on diagnoses or in the field delivering immunizations to children — who are integral to helping us achieve all our health goals. New investments are needed to train more health workers to close the gap in the health workforce that we’re seeing, which is currently a global shortfall of 15 million people.
"New investments need to be made to train more health workers to close the gap in the health workforce..."
Senior Policy Associate for Global Health, UN Foundation
In Afghanistan, Zahra feeds her son a meal she prepared using micronutrient powders. The UNICEF-supplied powders are given to parents by community health workers to add critical vitamins and minerals to a child’s food in order to improve the quality of their diets — and health. Photo: Sayed Bidel / UNICEF
Martha: First, we have got to stop this neglect-panic cycle. That’s something we saw with COVID. We neglect the prevention and the investments we need to make, and then a pandemic happens, and we have to pour loads of money into it to react. As this pandemic is waning, I am really worried about investments going away when it’s so critical. We know this is not the last pandemic we will see. So it’s really important that the financial resources are there, and the planning is there. It’s not only a question of money. It’s human resources. Health care workers need to be fairly paid. In so many countries, it’s volunteer work or very minimal wages.
"If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that if we don’t protect the health of people around the world, we’re putting ourselves at risk."
Executive Director, Shot@Life
Underpinning all of that, there needs to be a recognition that health is wealth and that access to health services is a human right. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that if we don’t protect the health of people around the world, we’re putting ourselves at risk.
Celebrate WHO's 75th Anniversary
Explore 75 years of public health improvements and join WHO on a global journey to achieve Health For All.