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This month in pharma...

Exploring the industry's most important dates, we recall April 1948: the establishment of the World Health Organisation

calendar April 2010In a column that aims to travel through time to explore the most significant events in pharmaceuticals and healthcare, it was inevitable that the World Health Organisation (WHO) would appear at some point.

For it was on April 7, 1948, that the WHO was established in Geneva, Switzerland, with an aim to provide a global agency to promote the improvement of the public's health.

Stemming from an initial proposal from Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, to create such a body, the WHO was one of the original agencies of the United Nations, taking over from the League of Nations' Health Organisation.

Dr Brock Chisholm was the WHO's first director-general, and described how improving and protecting public health must be an international effort, writing 'no country can depend solely on its own protective efforts.'

Chisholm also helped write the WHO's constitution, which contains such principled ideas as: 'The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.'

It was this attitude that made the WHO lead the way in instigating vaccine campaigns across the world, targeting debilitating diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and malaria.

One of the most successful campaigns instigated by the WHO was its effort to eradicate smallpox worldwide, with an 'intensified' plan launched in 1967 to tackle the infectious disease which still affected around 10-15 million people per year at the time of the programme's initiation.

The global eradication of the disease was certified in December 1979 following over a decade of intense action, with the last single natural case reported to have occurred in Somalia in 1977.

Now headed by Dr Margaret Chan, the WHO has grown from 26 original members to cover 193 countries. Over 80 partners are now involved with the body, including many pharmaceutical companies.

Recent programmes have included delivering swine flu vaccines to countries in developing nations during 2009, with around 150 million doses of the vaccine donated by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and sanofi-aventis (S-A).

The GAVI Alliance (formerly The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation) has also seen strong links grow between the WHO and the pharma industry, with the Alliance aiming to provide vaccines for children in developing nations and protect public health.

The WHO is a member of the Alliance alongside several companies in the life sciences industry. Recently, Alliance activities have included GSK and Pfizer committing to supplying vaccines for pneumococcal disease for use in children in the world's poorest countries.

The WHO also remains a strong influence in drug regulation, practice and planning, with country offices advising each nation about pharmaceutical policy, supported by a main Department of Essential Medicines and Pharmaceutical Policies.

Now 63 years old, the WHO remains the leading international voice in major healthcare debates and an essential partner and adviser to, and critic of, the pharmaceutical industry.

The Author
Tom Meek, assistant web editor at PMGroup

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13th April 2011


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