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Then, Now, Next

In 75 years, the UN has made big leaps in improving global health — but we still have a lot to do

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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