Edited by James Sperling
Chapter 27: World Health Organization
The World Health Organization (WHO) was established in 1948 as the United Nations specialized agency for health. Its creation was preceded by a long history of international health cooperation. The influenza pandemic of 412 BC, the Plague of Athens in 430 BC (typhus), the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the fourteenth century, and exchange of infectious diseases between the eastern and western hemispheres from 1492 (Crosby 1972) prompted early forms of cooperation to control epidemic diseases across continents (Watts 2003). From the mid-nineteenth century, efforts began to be more formalized via 14 International Sanitary Conferences held between 1851 and 1938. Four international conventions were agreed by 1903, which were later codified and consolidated into the International Sanitary Regulations, the forerunner of the present-day International Health Regulations. This was followed in 1907 by the establishment of a permanent body, the Office International d’Hygiène Publique (OIHP), to collect and report epidemiological data from member states. Following the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918–19, which killed an estimated 25 million people worldwide, the League of Nations Health Organization (LNHO) was created in 1920. The LNHO was envisioned as going beyond statistical collation and dissemination, organizing member states ‘to take steps in matters of international concern for the prevention and control of disease’ (League of Nations 1919: Article 23(f)). This desire to expand the scope of international health cooperation, however, was overtaken by stronger political tides which saw the US withdraw from participating in the League of Nations. The US was active, however, in the formation of the regional Pan American Sanitary Bureau (PASB) in 1902.
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