The 65th annual celebration of World Health Day took place last week on 7th April, with a global launch of the Small Bite: Big Threat campaign against vector-borne diseases at the WHO’s Geneva headquarters. Over half of the global population is at risk of diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow fever, all of which are preventable but which but have the biggest impact on some of the world’s poorest people. To highlight the risks to travellers, WHO staff installed a 3-D illustration of a giant mosquito at Heathrow Airport and distributed World Health Day boarding passes to passengers, drawing attention to the danger of vector-borne diseases and the simple measures they can take to protect themselves.
‘World Health Days’, the WHO’s Director-General Margaret Chan told visitors to the launch event in Geneva, ‘provide an opportunity to focus world attention on a health problem or issue that deserves special attention.’ Celebrations over recent years have focussed on antimicrobial resistance, climate change and road safety among other issues.
The first World Health Day took place in 1949, not on 7th April but instead on 22nd July, the date that 61 nations had signed the charter of the World Health Organization at New York in 1946. Documents in the WHO archives suggest that the goal of these early events was less to raise awareness of specific health issues, and more, in the words of the first Director-General Brock Chisholm, ‘to encourage public interest in and support of the aims of the Organization.’
In 1949, individual governments were charged with organising events in their own countries and they took up the challenge with varying degrees of zeal. New Zealand led the way with a range of national and local events organized by branches of its United Nations Association. Ireland, Turkey, Austria, Italy and South Africa also responded, organising radio and cinema broadcasts, concerts, press releases and government-directed bible readings amongst other activities. The WHO headquarters in Geneva provided information about the organisation’s early success in combatting malaria in Italy and Greece, providing tuberculosis vaccines in India and responding to a typhus epidemic in Afghanistan. It also distributed a range of publicity materials and suggestions to national government, including a call to issue commemorative postage stamps (a perennial favourite of international organisations at the time).
Not everyone greeted the event with such enthusiasm however. Some countries felt they hadn’t had enough time to prepare suitable activities, whilst others sensibly pointed out that holding such a celebration when most children were on school holidays would severely blunt its impact. The WHO agreed, and the Second World Health Assembly decided that from 1950 World Health Day would be celebrated on April 7th, to commemorate the date in 1948 when the WHO constitution had officially come in to force.
The decision to link World Health Day to the foundation of the WHO highlights some interesting tensions in the early history of the organisation. In 1949 the US and Venezuela protested that they had been successfully celebrating Pan-American Health Day on 2nd December ever since the foundation of the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau (PASB) in 1902, both suggesting that World Health Day should share the same date. The relationship between the PASB and the WHO was one of the biggest areas of debate at the 1946 New York conference that drew up the WHO constitution. Whilst many delegates, particularly from Europe, emphasised the importance of having a single global health organisation, American states were keen to see the work of the PASB continue. The debate around the issue created significant divisions within the conference, including between Britain and the US. Eventually it was agreed that the PASB would continue as the WHO’s regional office for the American continent, although the exact timescale for its incorporation was left deliberately vague.
Implicit in the connection between World Health Day and the foundation of the WHO was the idea that action in the realm of global health somehow began when the organisation was founded, potentially underestimating the legacy of the various international health bodies such as the PASB which had preceded it. To mark this year’s World Health Day, the in-house magazine for the WHO and the UN in Geneva, UN Special, published an article on the birth of the WHO. It focusses on the meeting between three medical men, Szeming Sze, Geraldo de Paula Souza and Karl Evang, at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945. It quotes Szeming Sze’s memoirs as saying the formation of the WHO “all came about quite accidently”, with the first mention of a new health organisation at the conference coming from Dr. Evang at a lunch meeting between the three men, and that it was their efforts to persuade other delegates that led to the decision to create a world health body.
Whilst this account is perfectly accurate, it somewhat downplays the extensive debates that had been taking place for at least the previous three years about the design and role of a future international health body, both within Allied governments and international organisations such as UNRRA. Central to these debates was the example of the League of Nations Health Organization, a body which had made significant contributions to the field of international health in the interwar period and which ultimately provided much of the template for the design of the WHO. It had continued to function in a much reduced form throughout the Second World War and its leading members were active participants in the debate about the shape of a post-war world health body. When the WHO Interim Commission began its work in 1947, it based itself in the same building as the League’s health section, employed many of the same personnel, and as we can see from the document above, even used the same stationery.
Indeed the same vector-borne diseases that the WHO was and is working to combat were also a key focus for the League, which established its own malaria commission in the 1920s. The fact that after nearly a century of international activity these diseases remain such a problem highlights the relevance of this year’s World Health Day campaign.
Yves Beigbeder et al., The World Health Organization (Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1998)
Iris Borowy, Coming to Terms with World Health: The League of Nations Health Organisation 1921-1946 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2009)
Neville Goodman, International Organizations and Their Work (Edinburgh: Churchill Livingston, 1952)
Szeming Sze, The Origins of the World Health Organization: A Personal Memoir 1945-1948 (Boca Raton: L.I.S.Z. Publications, 1982)
Paul Weindling (ed.), International Health Organisations and Movements, 1918-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)
 Documents relating to the history of World Health Day can be found in the WHO archives, Centralized Files First Generation, section 400-1-2. All unattributed material from this post comes from these files.