In 75 years, the UN has made big leaps in improving global health — but we still have a lot to do
WHO/Daniel Hodgson
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On June 26, 1945, delegates from 50 countries gathered in the Herbst Theater auditorium in San Francisco.

They were there to sign the U.N. Charter, a treaty that, in its 19 chapters and 111 articles, founded and established a world organization devoted to saving "succeeding generations from the scourge of war." It would do so by maintaining international peace and security, strengthening international law, expanding human rights, and promoting social progress and better standards of life.

On that day, World War II was not even yet over — that day wouldn't come until September 2nd, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered — but it established an organization that, as one of its first endeavors, helped distribute lifesaving supplies and medicines to countries reeling from disease, injury and the trauma of war.


And that would be far from its first milestone towards creating a healthier world. Improving health around the world has always been a key priority of the U.N.

In fact, when diplomats met to create the organization, one of the very first things they discussed was setting up a global health agency, something they did just three years later when, on April 7, 1948, they established the World Health Organization (WHO) with the mission to help deliver on the promise of health for all. It tackles infectious disease, reduces preventable deaths for girls and women, and improves access to safe water and sanitation; it fights for the rights of people with disabilities and mental health issues; and it strengthens health systems.

Now in 2020, the UN though WHO is once again providing lifesaving equipment and supplies to more than 130 countries — leading the global fight against COVID-19.

WHO is just one of the big leaps that the U.N. has taken towards improving global health. Here are a few of the many other accomplishments it has made:

1946: The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is founded to help provide support and relief to children living in countries impacted by war.

1950s: This is the golden age of antibiotics discovery and implementation, helping fight such diseases as bacterial meningitis (which was fatal for children 90% of the time before), strep throat, and the spread of ear infections to the brain.

1969: The United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) begins operations to empower women to decide if and when they have a family, to improve childbirth safety, and help children reach their potential.

1979: Smallpox is eradicated after a 12-year WHO global vaccination campaign with global partners.

1988: The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is established. Since then, polio cases have decreased by 99% because of access to immunizations.

2000: The largest-ever gathering of world leaders issues the Millennium Declaration, which lays out eight aspirational goals. Three of those goals are specifically designed to spur progress in child health, maternal health and combating disease.

2001: The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is created to help fight the three largest infectious disease killers in the world through global cooperation.

2006: The number of children who die before their fifth birthday declines below 10 million for the first time.

2015: All U.N. Member States adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. One of those goals is to ensure health and well-being for everyone everywhere.

2018: WHO, the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Convention on Climate Change and UN Environment hold the first Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health at WHO headquarters in Geneva.

2019: 190 U.N. Member States adopt the historic political declaration on Universal Health Coverage at the UN General Assembly identifying ways to make health for all a reality.

UNICEF/Carolina Cabral

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter's signing, there is still a lot of work to be done.

At least half the world's population is still without access to essential health services. Even though half as many under-5s die now than before 2000, still 5.4m children die before their fifth birthday each year. Racial and economic disparities are still rampant in healthcare, affecting maternal mortality rates, access to care, and quality of treatment. The proportion of mothers who do not survive childbirth is 14 percent higher in developing nations. And now, COVID-19 has created one of the most pressing public health crises we've experienced in the last century.

The pandemic is threatening to erode and reverse current progress, and yet, in May, President Trump announced the US's plans to end its relationship with WHO. This move could hamper the world's response to the virus, including vaccine development, science and information sharing, resource mobilization, and efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus on the most vulnerable. It also jeopardizes hard-won gains on diseases like polio, putting progress at risk.

If we don't defeat COVID-19 everywhere, we won't be safe anywhere — and we can only beat it by working together.

It will take action from everyone to build stable and fair health systems that challenge misinformation, invest in vaccines, and strengthen relief from disease outbreaks.

You can learn more about these goals by checking out "Voice Our Future" — an immersive and interactive reality experience exploring the then, now, and next of some of the most critical challenges of our times. You can also further the reach of your voice by taking the one-minute survey to help inform the UN's thinking and priorities.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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