What Is the World Health Organization?

Learn about the organization that promotes public health around the globe

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first proposed in 1945 as a public health agency to be formed as part of the United Nations. WHO’s constitution was ratified on April 7, 1948, marking its official establishment.

 WHO categorizes its work into three broad areas of focus:

  • Advocating for universal health coverage
  • Preparing for public health emergencies and coordinating a global response
  • Serving vulnerable populations

Main Responsibilities

To support its three main missions, WHO engages in a variety of technical and practical functions related to disease prevention, emergency response, and direct care delivery.

Research

Collection and analysis of public health data represents a cornerstone of WHO’s function in identifying and responding to disease. WHO uses these data to inform disease prevention guidelines, such as vaccination standards.

Based on its research, WHO creates reference information—such as the International Classification of Diseases—that standardize global reporting of illness and disease. WHO also uses its data to develop clinical guides for disease prevention, such as its WHO Model Lists of Essential Medicines, that countries can use to create a comprehensive healthcare system.

WHO’s research extends beyond personal health concerns to encompass issues that impact community health. For example, WHO’s research led to recommendations related to clean air and water standards in 2018.

Disease Prevention

WHO has always focused on disease prevention, beginning with efforts to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases like smallpox and polio. The organization promotes disease prevention directly and indirectly through initiatives that include:

  • Promoting universal healthcare for all
  • Identifying disease outbreaks and coordinating a response
  • Publishing clinical practice recommendations and standards related to various health conditions, like child pneumonia and diarrhea
  • Working directly in fragile communities to deliver basic healthcare services
  • Working with other public and private organizations to improve environmental conditions, like water sanitation, that affect community health
  • Publishing educational materials, such as posters and brochures, to inform the public on how and why to perform tasks like handwashing that can prevent disease

Emergency Response

Throughout its history, WHO has coordinated global health emergency responses to crises ranging from Ebola to COVID-19. WHO takes a multi-pronged approach to emergency preparedness that includes:

  • Planning: WHO maintains a Public Health Emergency Operations Centre Network (EOC-NET) that engages in ongoing emergency preparedness functions with its Member States.
  • Communication: In the event WHO’s surveillance detects an emerging public health threat, the organization communicates the details to potentially affected Member States.
  • Coordination: WHO facilitates and coordinates cooperation between countries during global health crises, including tracking the deployment of resources.
  • Funding: WHO maintains a Contingency Fund for Emergencies, from which it rapidly disburses funds after it identifies a threat that requires management.
  • Activation: In the event of a health crisis, WHO can activate and deploy emergency medical teams and other partner groups.

WHO’s emergency response activities extend to natural disasters, wars, and other issues beyond chronic diseases and general wellness.

Who is in Charge?

As an agency of the United Nations, WHO’s governing body – the World Health Assembly (WHA) – includes representatives of every United Nations Member State. WHO’s structure includes an executive board comprised of 34 technically qualified representatives from the various Member States. These members generally possess an extensive background in clinical or public health.

The WHA elects a Director-General every five years. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was elected in 2017 for a term that expires in 2022. An Ethiopian, Ghebreyesus is the first WHO Director-General elected from the group’s African region.

WHO also organizes numerous committees and working groups, often dedicated to single-interest initiatives like road safety.

Members

The WHA currently consists of 194 members, one designee from each Member State. Meetings of the WHA and Executive Board may be attended by “non-State actors” (non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, philanthropic organizations, and others) who may observe and make statements to the body, but cannot vote.

To carry out its global mission, WHO engages in “partnerships, networks, and alliances” with a wide variety of groups in various countries to facilitate its ability to coordinate transportation, lodging, and other services.

Funding

WHO is funded by its member states through “assessed” and voluntary contributions. The assessed contribution represents the equivalent of membership dues. The U.S. has always been WHO’s largest funder. Over the past decade (2010 to 2019), U.S. assessed contributions have fluctuated between $107 million and $119 million per year, and voluntary contributions have ranged from $102 million in 2014 to $401 million in 2017.

The biennial operating budget of WHO for 2020 and 2021 is $4.84 billion.

How WHO Works with the U.S. Government

WHO works with the United States through WHO’s Pan American Health Organization. This group brings WHO’s mission and resources to all of the Americas. WHO’s work in the U.S. includes providing public health surveillance data to inform decision-making during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 14, 2020, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the country would immediately halt funding to WHO, calling for a review of its alleged mishandling of the COVID-19 response. Whether this freeze is temporary, legal, or what will be done with the money instead remains to be seen.

COVID-19 Response

WHO issued its first situation report—a sort of daily status report—regarding COVID-19 on January 20, 2020. This report described a “pneumonia of unknown etiology … detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province of China” on December 31, 2019. Upon being notified of these pneumonia cases on January 2, 2020, WHO activated its incident management system to provide support within China and the surrounding region to contain and manage the threat.

WHO has subsequently issued more than 90 additional situation reports, each containing surveillance information, statistics, clinical information, and guidelines for responding to the threat in every country around the globe.

Past Emergency Response

WHO specializes in rapid identification of emerging health threats, such as COVID-19, and activation of resources to mitigate the threat. It has successfully identified and responded to previous health emergencies.

SARS

On March 12, 2003, WHO issued a global alert about a specific health threat that later came to be known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). This early warning may have helped contain the threat, which, like COVID-19, is caused by a coronavirus but which never evolved into a pandemic.

Ebola

In 2014, the Ebola virus caused a large outbreak in western Africa. WHO responded to provide a range of support, including contact tracing, strategy, case management, and dignified burials.

Zika Virus

In 2016, WHO and its Pan American Health Organization jointly rolled out a strategic response to combat the Zika virus throughout the Americas. WHO provided research, prevention and care guidelines, and public health education materials to guide decision-making.

A Word From Verywell

WHO is one of many health-focused organizations you may be hearing about in light of COVID-19. On a national level, while WHO can make data-backed recommendations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the U.S. agency that can actually implement public health decisions for the country.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. The U.S. Government and the World Health Organization. Published April 16, 2020.

  2. Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing. April 14, 2020.

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