The WHO has found that infectious diseases are spreading faster and faster due to increased mobility of humans. In order to better deal with threatening epidemics, in 2000 the WHO initiated a new network with the task of identifying threatening epidemics and taking immediate action.
Through the network, the WHO coordinated the work when a previously unknown form of pneumonia, SARS, was discovered in Hong Kong and Vietnam in February 2003. In a short time, the new virus could be identified, the spread of infection mapped and countermeasures taken. Before the epidemic was declared in June of the same year, the infection had spread to nearly 30 countries.
Since then, the WHO has had to deal with several new outbreaks of viruses spreading in several countries (swine flu 2009, March 2012, Ebola 2014) and the WHO is currently struggling to stem the largest pandemic the world has experienced in modern times: covid-19. By the beginning of autumn 2020, the pandemic had infected over 29 million people and claimed over 930,000 lives.
During the pandemic, the WHO has acted as the spider in the web when it comes to gathering and disseminating information about the infection and the disease. The organization has partly tried to assist health authorities around the world with practical advice, and partly been a channel for communicating the results of the research that is going on to stop the pandemic.
According to ethnicityology, the WHO also works to combat non-communicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. There are also programs for, among other things, mental health, dental health and aging and health. The WHO also works to help injured people get rehabilitation.
In addition to fighting diseases, the WHO also works to create a good environment as a basis for a healthy life. Among other things, the WHO works to ensure that all people have the right to clean water and access to good sanitation.
Together with the UN Food Program FAO, the WHO seeks to ensure that all people have access to food free of toxins. WHO runs several programs focusing on children, adolescents and women’s health. Sexual and reproductive health are also on the agenda, among other things through family planning, safe abortions and measures against female circumcision.
WHO members have been able to reach agreement on most issues. It is easy to get support behind, for example, campaigns against infectious diseases and research on cancer. When the focus is on more general efforts for public health, greater contradictions are sometimes created. Many members reacted negatively when the WHO in 2000 began to rank different countries’ health care systems, in an attempt to make visible how political priorities affect public health.
Proposals that are considered to go against the financial interests of, for example, the pharmaceutical, food or tobacco industry have also been controversial. In some cases, especially developed countries have opposed the WHO taking a position. The WHO’s basic medicines program was also initially a sensitive issue for the pharmaceutical industry, which has also ensured that the ethical guidelines for medicines adopted by the WHO do not develop into more binding rules.
Some critics also say that the organization touches too much on issues related to individuals’ choices. This applies, for example, to the use of tobacco and alcohol. Here, the member countries have had different opinions on how the WHO should stand. However, as the negative health effects have become clearer, the organization has sharpened its tone, not least with regard to tobacco. In 2003, the WHO adopted an anti-tobacco convention which, among other things, regulates advertising, age limits and smoking in public places. Since 2005, the WHO has not employed anyone who uses tobacco.
In the case of alcohol, it was long difficult to keep a unified line. But the WHO has determined that alcohol is the fifth largest risk factor for disease in the world; in Europe, it is the third largest risk factor. Following an initiative from Sweden and the rest of the Nordic region, the WHO decided in 2005 on increased efforts against the harmful effects of alcohol.
The organization’s research on possible health hazards with electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones has also been controversial. Likewise, the issue of the consequences of nuclear weapons for health and health care has often been debated at WHO meetings. Several countries claim that the nuclear issue is a political issue that does not belong in the organization.