What is the World Health Organization? - Definition, History & Purpose

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  • 0:00 What Is The World…
  • 1:10 History Of The WHO
  • 2:45 Purpose Of The WHO
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bethany Davis

Bethany has taught college business courses and has a master's degree in organizational and human resource development.

The World Health Organization is a group that focuses on global health issues. This lesson will cover its start at the United Nations, its purpose and progress so far, and its challenges in today's world.

What is the World Health Organization?

Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if polio was still a threatening medical condition? What if a new disease outbreak suddenly threatened your country like we see in the movies and the news?

The World Health Organization, or the WHO, is a part of the United Nations that focuses on global health issues. This organization has been working for over 60 years on such issues as smallpox eradication, family planning, childhood immunizations, maternal morbidity rates, polio eradication, and AIDS.

The WHO outlines several leadership priorities, which are a part of the initiatives for better world health. These leadership priorities include:

  • Working towards universal health coverage
  • Developing international health regulations
  • Increasing access to medical products
  • Researching factors such as social, economic, and environmental issues as they contribute to health
  • Preventing non-communicable diseases
  • And putting emphasis on other 'millennium development goals' such as combating poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women

History of the WHO

In the aftermath of World War II, conversations at the United Nations began to turn to the need for an organization focused on improving and maintaining worldwide health. Conversations about starting such an organization began in 1945, when the WHO was discussed among United Nations diplomats. There were a variety of delays to its start, including waiting on signatures from participating nations or, most notably, the beginning of the Cold War.

Despite these delays, the impact of a post-World War II world included extremely high disease rates and loss of basic resources and infrastructure. These factors ultimately led to the finalization of the World Health Organization, which was officially formed April 7, 1948, a day still celebrated each year as World Health Day.

The WHO has been an integral part of the United Nations efforts in several key areas, including immunizations, health education, and ensuring the availability of essential drugs. For example, working with many other organizations, the WHO has prevented over five million deaths since 2000. Another example is the eradication of smallpox in 1980. And finally, the WHO contributed to the success of the Polio Eradication Initiative, which has allowed millions to live a life free of paralysis from polio.

What started as a smaller initiative among a few nation-states now has 194 member-states as part of the World Health Assembly, which is the decision-making authority of the WHO.

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