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The World Health Organization turns 75

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Every so often on this program - in a story about the pandemic, for example - we mention the World Health Organization. I've said it myself without really thinking about what the WHO really is, what it does or why it exists at all. Our science reporter Ari Daniel has been thinking about the WHO. It turns 75 today, and Ari asked where it came from.

ARI DANIEL, BYLINE: When Alexandre White looks back on the year 1945, as World War II was shuddering to a close, he sees a planet in ruins.

ALEXANDRE WHITE: It was a pretty difficult and fraught time for the world 75 years ago.

DANIEL: White's a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. More than 50 countries had been involved in combat. And from a human health perspective, here was the great worry.

WHITE: The concern was very much severe infectious disease threats that arise from refugees and soldiers returning to their homes.

DANIEL: So a bunch of countries began pushing for some kind of global something that would be in charge of keeping the people of the world healthy. This entity would monitor illness and control the spread of infectious disease through, among other things, vaccination campaigns. But...

WHITE: There was a good amount of resistance and concern. This was the period where we're seeing, you know, a good deal of jockeying for political position with the rising power of the United States as well as the Soviet Union.

DANIEL: Both of which felt that an organization like this would threaten their growing power. So it was other countries, like Brazil and China, that in 1948 pushed to establish the World Health Organization as part of the United Nations. Here's an excerpt from a film produced that year by the U.N. Public Information Office.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In its first assembly, July 1948, Director General Dr. Chisholm declared that this organization was physically prepared to raise the health level of all people and to forever destroy the human afflictions of malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and syphilis.

DANIEL: Wafaa El-Sadr is executive vice president of Columbia Global.

WAFAA EL-SADR: It was a time when there was great promise that if we come together, we can solve big problems. It was a sense of the promise and the possible.

DANIEL: That promise was evident in what many see as the WHO's signature achievement - working in partnership to eradicate smallpox by 1980. Muhammad Zaman is a global public health professor at Boston University.

MUHAMMAD ZAMAN: Think about having a disease in the world that over the course of centuries, perhaps millennia, has wiped out entire communities, and then one day to look back and say that disease no longer exists.

DANIEL: But turns out that smallpox was a unique victory. The WHO continues to battle many of those same diseases it first hoped to eradicate - malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, syphilis, soon thereafter, polio, and, eventually, Ebola. In 2014, the WHO was criticized for its handling of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Ifeanyi Nsofor is a fellow at the Aspen Institute. He says the WHO was too slow to declare the Ebola outbreak a public health emergency.

IFEANYI NSOFOR: Because we know that that really unlocks so many things that should happen to help contain that epidemic.

DANIEL: Like treatments, resources, coordination.

NSOFOR: Eventually, they got around to it. But more than 11,000 people had died across West Africa.

DANIEL: And then COVID-19 came along. And once again, the WHO was thrust into the public spotlight, where its response received mixed reactions, though many have praised its early action to declare a pandemic and mobilize an international effort to control the virus. Still, some say the organization's spread thin. Wafaa El-Sadr asks...

EL-SADR: What can it add today to be more effective, particularly in a very changing world?

DANIEL: She'd like to see the WHO focus on the world's most vulnerable, to bring the hope and resources of the WHO to those in greatest need.

For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "DELPHINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Daniel is a reporter for NPR's Science desk where he covers global health and development.