World Health Organization

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World Health Organization
Flag of World Health Organization
Flag of World Health Organization
Headquarters Geneva, Switzerland
Membership 193 member states
Official languages Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish
Formation 7 April 1948
Official website

The World Health Organization (WHO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, acting as a coordinating authority on international public health, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Historically, WHO inherited much of the mandate and resources of its predecessor, the Health Organization (HO), which had been an agency of the League of Nations. The WHO was established by the UN on 7 April 1948. The Director-General Elect is Dr. Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun. She takes up her official duties on 4 January 2007. Dr Anders Nordström, of Sweden, continues as Acting Director-General until then.


WHO's constitution states that its mission "is the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health". Its major task is to combat disease, especially key infectious diseases, and to promote the general health of the peoples of the world. As well as coordinating international efforts to monitor outbreaks of infectious disease such as SARS, malaria, and AIDS, it also has programs to combat such diseases, by developing and distributing vaccines. After years of fighting smallpox, WHO declared in 1979 that the disease had been eradicated - the first disease in history to be completely eliminated by deliberate human design. WHO is nearing success in developing vaccines against malaria and schistosomiasis and aims to eradicate polio within the next few years. The organization has already endorsed the world's first official HIV/AIDS Toolkit for Zimbabwe from October 3, 2006, making it an international standard.

WHO also compiles the widely followed International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The tenth revision of the ICD was released in 1992 and a searchable version is available online on the WHO website, although it is not comprehensive. Later revisions are indexed and available in hardcopy versions. The WHO does not permit simultaneous classification in two separate areas.

The constitution of WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not as consisting only of the absence of disease or infirmity or mental retardation.

In addition to its work in eradicating disease, WHO also carries out campaigns — for example, to boost consumption of fruits and vegetables worldwide, or to discourage tobacco consumption – and conducts research: for instance, into whether or not the electromagnetic field surrounding cell phones has a negative influence on health. Some of this work can be controversial, such as the April 2003 WHO report which recommended that sugar be no more than 10% of a healthy diet, which led to lobbying by the sugar industry against this recommendation .

In addition to WHO's stated mission, international treaties assign the Organization a variety of responsibilities. For instance, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the Convention on Psychotropic Substances call on WHO to issue binding scientific and medical assessments of psychoactive drugs and recommend how they should be regulated. In this way, WHO acts as a check on the power of the drug policymaking Commission on Narcotic Drugs.


WHO Headquarters in Geneva.
WHO Headquarters in Geneva.

WHO Member States appoint delegations to the World Health Assembly, WHO's supreme decision-making body. The Assembly generally meets in May each year, and as well as appointing the Director-General (for five-year terms), supervises the financial policies of the Organization, and reviews and approves the proposed programme budget. The Assembly elects 34 members who are technically qualified in the field of health for three-year terms to an Executive Board. The main functions of the Board are to give effect to the decisions and policies of the Assembly, to advise it and generally to facilitate its work.


WHO has 193 Member States, including all UN Member States except Liechtenstein, and 2 non-UN-members, Niue and the Cook Islands. Territories that are not UN Member States may join as Associate Members (with full information but limited participation and voting rights) if approved by an Assembly vote: Puerto Rico and Tokelau are Associate Members. Entities may also be granted observer status - examples include the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Holy See (Vatican City).

The Republic of China (Taiwan), which was in effect expelled from the UN in 1971 (and from the WHO a year later), has been actively campaigning for observer status under the name "Taiwan Health Entity", against the will of the People's Republic of China, which replaced the ROC in the WHO in 1972 and sees the participation of Taiwan as violation of its One-China Policy. The ROC government contends that the PRC does not represent the interests of the people on Taiwan and that non-state entities such as Niue are members.


WHO is financed by contributions from member states and from donors. In recent years, WHO's work has involved more collaboration, currently around 80 such partnerships, with NGOs and the pharmaceutical industry, as well as with foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Voluntary contributions to the WHO from national and local governments, foundations and NGOs, other UN organizations, and the private sector (including pharmaceutical companies), now exceed that of assessed contributions (dues) from its 193 member nations.


The day-to-day work of WHO is carried out by its Secretariat, which is staffed by some 8,500 health and other experts and support staff, working at headquarters, in the six regional offices, and in the individual representation offices in 147 countries. WHO is also represented by WHO Goodwill Ambassadors.

Regional Offices

Regional offices and regions of the WHO: ██ Africa; HQ: Brazzaville, Congo ██ Americas; HQ: Washington, DC, USA ██ Eastern Med.; HQ: Cairo, Egypt ██ Europe; HQ: Copenhagen, Denmark ██ South East Asia; HQ: New Delhi, India ██ Western Pacific; HQ: Manila, Philippines
Regional offices and regions of the WHO: ██ Africa; HQ: Brazzaville, Congo ██  Americas; HQ: Washington, DC, USA ██ Eastern Med.; HQ: Cairo, Egypt ██ Europe; HQ: Copenhagen, Denmark ██ South East Asia; HQ: New Delhi, India ██ Western Pacific; HQ: Manila, Philippines

Quite uncharacteristically for a UN Agency, the six (6) Regional Offices of WHO have a remarkable amount of autonomy. Each Regional Office is headed by a Regional Director (RD), who is elected by the Regional Committee for that Region, for a once-renewable five-year term. The name of the RD-elect is then transmitted to the WHO Executive Board, at the headquarters in Geneva, which proceeds to confirm the appointment. It is rare that an elected Regional Director not be confirmed.

The Regional Committee of WHO for each region consists of all the Health Department heads, in all the governments of the countries that constitute the Region. Aside from electing the Regional Director, the Regional Committee is also in charge of setting the guidelines for the implementation of all the Health and other policies adopted by the World Health Assembly, within their region. The Regional Committee also serves as a progress review board for the actions of WHO within the Region.

The Regional Director is effectively the head of the WHO for their particular region. The RD manages and/or supervises a staff of health and other experts, at the regional headquarters and in specialized centers. The RD is also the direct supervising authority — concomitantly with the WHO Director General — of all the heads of WHO country offices within their region, known as WHO Representatives.

The Regional Offices are:

  • Regional Office for Africa ( AFRO)I, with headquarters in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. AFRO includes most of Africa, with the exception of Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, and Morocco which belong to EMRO. Somalia is also not counted as it does not have an official government, though it is in the process of getting one.
  • Regional Office for Europe ( EURO), with headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Regional Office for South East Asia ( SEARO), with headquarters in New Delhi, India. North Korea is served by SEARO.
  • Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean ( EMRO), with headquarters in Cairo, Egypt. EMRO includes the countries of Africa, and particularly in the Maghreb, that are not included in AFRO, as well as the countries of the Middle East.
  • Regional Office for Western Pacific ( WPRO), with headquarters in Manila, Philippines. WPRO covers all the Asian countries not served by SEARO and EMRO, and all the countries in Oceania. South Korea is served by WPRO.
  • Regional Office for the Americas ( AMRO), with headquarters in Washington, DC, United States of America. It is better known as the Pan American Health Organization, or PAHO. Since it predates the establishment of WHO, PAHO is by far the most autonomous of the 6 regional offices.

Country Offices

The World Health Organization operates 147 country and liaison offices, in all its regions. The presence of a country office is generally motivated by a need, stated by the member country. There will generally be one WHO country office in the capital, occasionally with antenna-offices in the provinces or sub-regions of that country.

The country office is headed by a WHO Representative (WR), who is not a national of that country, and who holds ranks, and is due privileges and immunities, similar to those of a Head of Diplomatic Mission or an Ambassador. In most countries, the WR (like Representatives of other UN agencies) is de facto treated like an Ambassador.

The country office consists of the WR, and several health and other experts, both foreign and local, as well as the necessary support staff.

The main functions of WHO country offices include being the primary adviser of that country's government in matters of health and pharmaceutical policies, play a coordinating role for the action of other International Liaison offices serve largely the same purpose as country offices, but generally on a smaller scale. These are often found in countries that do want WHO presence and cooperation, but do not have the major health system flaws that require the presence of a full-blown country office. Liaison offices are headed by a liaison officer, who is a national from that particular country, without diplomatic immunity.

Some WHO-private sector partnerships

  • PATH: Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (
  • IAVI: International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (
  • MMV: Medicines for Malaria Venture (
  • MVI: Malaria Vaccine Initiative (
  • TB Alliance: Global Alliance for TB Drug Development (
  • Aeras: Aeras Global TB Vaccine Foundation (
  • IPM: International Partnership for Microbicides (
  • PDVI: Pediatric Dengue Vaccine Initiative (
  • FIND: Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (
  • IOWH: Institute for One World Health (
  • DNDi: Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (

Directors-General of WHO

The late Lee Jong-wook, past Director-General of the World Health Organization
The late Lee Jong-wook, past Director-General of the World Health Organization
Name Country Term of Office
Brock Chisholm Canada 1948–1953
Marcolino Gomes Candau Brazil 1953–1973
Halfdan T. Mahler Denmark 1973–1988
Hiroshi Nakajima Japan 1988–1998
Gro Harlem Brundtland Norway 1998–2003
Lee Jong-wook South Korea 2003–2006 (died on 5/22)
Anders Nordström (acting) Sweden 2006
Margaret Chan Hong Kong,China January 4, 2007–2012

  • Former Directors General

Other notable persons associated with WHO

  • Carlo Urbani
  • Andrija Štampar
  • David Nabarro
  • Arata Kochi
  • Jonathan Mann
  • Velma Kay Lopez

Personnel policy

The World Health Organization is an agency of the United Nations and as such shares a core of common personnel policy with other agencies.


The World Health Organization has recently banned the recruitment of cigarette smokers, to promote the principle of a tobacco-free work environment.


Statistics published by the WHO are largely based on official government figures .

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