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The World HealthOrganization, commonly abbreviated as WHO, is an agency of the United Nations that works to promote public health around the world. One of its principal focuses is combating communicable diseases, such as influenza, HIV, and malaria. In 2020, the World Health Organization notably helped coordinate international efforts to control and prevent the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the World Health Organization was founded on April 7, 1948, when its constitution came into force. WHO inherited the activities of its precursors, the International Office of Public Health, founded in 1907, and the League of Nations Health Organization (LNHO), which was dissolved in 1946.
As stated in its constitution, the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The organization is guided by the principles that health is a fundamental human right and that every person should enjoy the highest standard of health.
The World Health Organization helped lead one of the greatest public health achievements in history: the eradication of smallpox, a highly contagious disease that has ravaged humanity since antiquity. But in 1979, WHO declared smallpox officially eradicated—that is, eliminated as a naturally occurring disease—as the result of vaccination programs.
The World Health Organization was also a major player in the near eradication of polio, a viral disease that can cause debilitating muscle weakness. WHO has helped spearhead efforts against many other communicable diseases, including Ebola, HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis.
While best known for its work in fighting communicable diseases, the World Health Organization pursues a broad array of programs and projects across the globe addressing:
- noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes
- health-related issues across people’s lifetimes
- tobacco and drug use
- environmental health issues, including clean air and water
- food safety and security
- road safety
- emergency response
- healthcare policies, including seeking universal healthcare coverage
Other key services of the World HealthOrganization—and carried out as part of its various missions—are monitoring health risks, conducting research, overseeing medical classifications, offering technical guidance, and providing scientific information and health education.
With a workforce of more than 8,000, made up of experts from epidemiologists to statisticians, the World Health Organization operates in 150 offices across the globe in addition to six regional offices and its headquarters in Geneva.
The World Health Organization works with 194 member states, which includes most of the countries around the world. The organization also partners with a variety of non-state actors, including a variety of specialized institutes, foundations, and professional societies.
Delegations from member states meet each year at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva. The WHA elects WHO’s director general, who serves a five-year term, and an executive board, made up of 34 experts who serve three-year terms.
With a two-year budget of nearly $6 billion, the World Health Organization primarily relies on contributions from member states for funding, though it also receives private donations.