World Health Organization


The World Health Organization (WHO) is the health authority within the United Nations (UN). The UN is an international organization concerned with coordinating efforts to make the world safer for future generations.


WHO is charged by the UN with coordinating and directing global health issues. In this role, WHO leads research in countries around the world concerning public health problems, diseases, and treatments. The research can involve monitoring and improving health trends. WHO also suggests or sets policies regarding health and disease prevention, along with becoming involved in global matters that can prevent disease or improve health. WHO also provides resources and technical support to countries around the world. The philosophy of the organization is that health is a shared responsibility, as is access to health care.

WHO has set an agenda aimed at improving public health that included the following:


The UN has 193 member states, and these countries plus two associate members belong to WHO. A meeting of countries is held every year in Geneva, Switzerland, to set organization policy and budget. Every five years, the countries appoint a new director-general. WHO has an executive board with 34 members that the entire health assembly elects. It also has six regional committees that focus on health matters specific to their regions of the world.

WHO is not strictly a volunteer assembly, however. The organization employs more than 8,000 public health professionals in its Geneva headquarters, six regional offices, and 147 country offices. These include physicians, epidemiologists, scientists, and administrators. More than 85 of WHO's countries have dedicated HIV/AIDS staff. Less than one-third of the WHO budget is based on assessed contributions from member states; the rest is based on voluntary contributions, primarily from member states. The money helps WHO address problems around the world; the organization estimates that up to 2 billion people face health threats every day.


WHO has several core functions. One is to provide global leadership on critical health matters and partner to take joint action when necessary to address those matters. WHO also engages in research and in helping to ensure important research is conducted and that the results are published. WHO sets various standards and promotes and monitors them to help improve health and provides technical support to communities or regions to help them create change. The organization emphasizes policies that are ethical and based on evidence and monitors and assesses health trends.


Top priorities in the early years of WHO were malaria, women's and children's health, tuberculosis, venereal disease, nutrition, and sanitation. Many of these priorities still exist today, and other diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, have been added as priorities. Some, such as smallpox, have been eradicated or at least controlled. In 1974, the organization began bringing vaccinations to children around the world.


In addition to tackling specific diseases and outbreaks and responding to disasters, WHO global and regional teams work strategically ahead of and during disease outbreaks. International Health Regulations provide rules that countries must follow when disease outbreaks occur to prevent diseases from spreading globally. By 1988, WHO had virtually eradicated polio by working with partnering organizations and volunteers to immunize children. Global treaties or strategies have been adopted to address the major health risk factors of tobacco and obesity. Most impressively, deaths of children younger than age five in all regions of the world were reduced from 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011.

WHO remains the global source for public health information. In September 2012, the organization alerted doctors around the world of a new virus related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that behaved differently than in the past. WHO also serves as an important marker for keeping industries and governments as consistent as possible in actions that affect public health. For example, the organization added diesel fuel to a list of carcinogens that included asbestos, cigarette smoke, and radiation. Each year on April 7, WHO marks the anniversary of its 1948 founding with a World Health Day that focuses on a different health initiative. The focus of the 2018 World Health Day campaign was universal health care.

Research and general acceptance

The goals of WHO are large, and yet the organization continues to serve as the global repository for public health data and policies. WHO statistics often are cited by clinicians, public health professionals, and policymakers. The organization publishes data on its millennium development goals, disease-specific information, country-specific statistics, and world statistics. Though there are criticisms from time to time, such as 2010 calls from some critics that WHO overstated the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the organization largely serves as a trusted resource, particularly to countries with the most limited resources of their own.

See also AIDS/HIV ; Asbestos ; Disease outbreaks ; Malaria ; Pandemic ; Polio ; Radiation ; Tuberculosis ; Sanitation ; Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) ; Smallpox .



Alphonso, Caroline. “WHO Fights Back Over Criticism That It Exaggerated H1N1 Threat.” The Globe and Mail. (accessed October 6, 2012).

World Health Organization. “About WHO.” (accessed October 6, 2012).

World Health Organization. “Working for Health: An Introduction to the World Health Organization.” (accessed October 6, 2012).


World Health Organization, Avenue Appia 20, 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland, 41 22 (791) 2111, Fax: 41 22 (791) 3111,, .

Teresa G. Odle

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.