WHO 60th anniversary

Message from the Director-General

Sixty years ago, when WHO was founded, public health faced the daunting task of restoring basic health services in a world badly damaged by war. Some of the earliest activities were urgent responses to emergencies: the delivery of medicines and vaccines, the containment of outbreaks, and the provision of relief to refugees. At the same time, WHO was fully aware of the broader role foreseen by its founders: to provide a mechanism through which all countries of the world could collaborate in the pursuit of better health.

Dr Margaret Chan

WHO quickly established the foundations for such collaboration and demonstrated the multiple benefits. Collaboration brought uniform quality standards for medicines and biologicals, a system of generic names for pharmaceutical products, internationally comparable research data and statistics, and a universal system for classifying the causes of diseases, injuries, and deaths. It also brought protection against the international spread of disease, and expert agreement on best practices for managing a host of health problems.

A commitment to the principles of equity and social justice was present at the outset. Through international collaboration for better health, WHO intended to build common understanding and good will. As noted in the earliest days by the first Director-General of the World Health Organization, Brock Chisholm, “Political, social, and economic differences have no meaning when the health of people is at stake.” That, too, was the foundation for an overriding objective: to extend the advantages of good health care to poor and marginalized populations. A way forward was clearly articulated in the Declaration of Alma-Ata, which launched the Health for All movement 30 years ago.

The challenges confronting public health have changed in profound ways. In today’s closely interdependent and interconnected world, health problems are increasingly shaped by the same powerful forces, creating universal threats. Changes in the way humanity inhabits the planet have spurred the emergence of new diseases and accelerated their international spread. Lifestyle changes have fuelled an alarming global rise of chronic diseases. The climate is changing, with profound consequences for health. High-mortality diseases, like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, are not yet under control. Advances in medicine have raced ahead, yet too many people have been left behind. Gaps in health outcomes, both within and between countries, continue to grow wider. The potential gains of international collaboration have never been so great.

Over the years, WHO has consistently demonstrated the power of collaboration, with successes ranging from the eradication of smallpox to the development of tools that have simplified and rationalized the job of protecting public health. Success has led to more ambitious goals. Above all, the health-related Millennium Development Goals express the collective will to see the benefits of medical progress more evenly distributed – an ambition that reflects the spirit of the Declaration of Alma-Ata.

As a mature institution, WHO enters its seventh decade fully aware of the challenges, yet bolstered by the optimism that has characterized this Organization since its inception. WHO enjoys unprecedented support, from the ministers of health in 193 countries, its regional and country offices, and a host of dedicated partners. It is my personal view that WHO is well-equipped to excel in the unique role envisioned 60 years ago, serving as a mechanism through which all countries collaborate in a shared quest for better health, motivated by common understanding and good will.

Dr Margaret Chan
World Health Organization