Global Health Histories

First World Health Assembly

The basic procedures, goals and objectives of the World Health Assembly have been the same since the Organization was founded, but the first health Assembly in 1948 was, in many ways, unique and different from all others.

The first World Health Assembly (WHA) was convened, barely two months after WHO was born, at a time when the organization did not have a headquarters.

The Interim Commission of WHO was formed in Geneva in 1946 to chart the roadmap for the future Organization and draft its Constitution and other core documents. After WHO was born on 7 April 1948, the Interim Commission set 24 June as the date for convening the first Health Assembly and selected Geneva as its venue.

The Interim Commission realized it would be difficult for WHO to develop hard and fast programmes for all health matters requiring international attention during the first year of its existence, and thus accorded high priority to the first WHA for making some key decisions. The budget for the first WHA was US$ 6 500 000.

Delegates and observers

The first World Health Assembly was attended by delegations from all but two of WHO’s 48 Member States. There were several observers: from nine non-Member States, military administrations, the United Nations and five agencies, and two health agencies which were in many respects precursors to WHO: the Pan American Sanitary Organization and the Office International d’Hygiene Publique.

An important item on the first WHA agenda was the location of its headquarters. Candidate cities were New York, Geneva and Paris, with London having withdrawn. The Health Assembly was told that 18 members preferred Geneva, four New York, and Paris and Washington got one vote each. Some Member States did not express any preference.

The task before the first World Health Assembly was heavy and unprecedented. The nascent organization embodied several novel concepts and had wider mandates than any previous multinational health body. The delegates at the first WHA had to bring this plan to life by charting the first tangible policies that would fulfill WHO’s mandate of ensuring the health of all people.

The first DG, and the first committees

The Assembly elected as President Dr Andrija Stampar (whose bust stands in SS1 in the Main Building just outside the WHO Bookshop), Chairman of the Interim Commission and delegate from the former Yugoslavia. Unlike current WHAs which have Committees A and B for programmatic and other issues, the first WHA set up five main committees, and many subcommittees, together with a coordinating General Committee, to deal with the agenda.

The session also elected the first Director-General, Dr Brock Chisholm, of Canada. It established the First Programme of Work, and as a step towards future policy, grouped the major health issues into categories of importance, the legacy of which we see in our programme clusters today. Malaria, maternal and child heath, tuberculosis, venereal disease, nutrition and environmental sanitation were the first top-priority “clusters”. Public health administration and parasitic diseases (now called communicable diseases) came next.

More decisions

In those days, the budgets were annual. The budgets for 1948 and 1949 were fixed at US$ 4 800 000 and US$ 5 000 000 respectively. The conclave also formalized WHO’s relationship with the United Nations, FAO, ILO and UNESCO by adopting draft agreements. Another decision set up a committee for biological standardization and nomenclature of disease, which today has evolved into the International Classification of Diseases.

The subject of decentralization occupied complex deliberations. In the end, the First WHA delineated six regions, although their names and constituents were then different from today. The first regional office that came into being was South-East Asia in 1948, with four founder members: Burma (Myanmar), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Siam (Thailand). A decision was also taken about a regional office for the “Mediterranean Area”. The other regions were set up by resolutions of subsequent Health Assemblies, and that is another story.

Compiled from archival records and documents.