MAKING HISTORY WITH WHO
As WHO celebrates its 60th anniversary, the Organization is becoming more aware of not just its own history, but the much broader history of global health across the last six decades – and how it relates to the present and the future.
THOMSON PRENTICE, WHO
Based on the principle that understanding the history of health in the last sixty years helps the response to the health challenges of today, in late 2004 WHO established a project called Global Health Histories (GHH). It promotes the concept that learning from history is vital to help shape a healthier future for everyone, especially those most in need.
The project is capturing the interest and engagement of a wide international audience – public health professionals and policy makers, academics, researchers, students and the general public – and sharing with them health knowledge inspired by history.
Global Health Histories is doing this in several ways. First, over the last few years it has been building an international network of health historians with expertise in a wide variety of areas. These range from the postwar origins of WHO itself, the influences on health of the Cold War and the end of colonial era on several continents, to the failure of the global malaria eradication campaign in the 1960s and the successful eradication of smallpox by 1980.
The network now extends to all of WHO’s six regional offices and boasts many of the bestknown names in health history. It is also linked with many leading institutions, such as the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London, the National Library of Medicine in the United States of America, and Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz), which is attached to the Ministry of Health in Brazil.
Many historians in the network have come to WHO in Geneva to give lectures on aspects of their work. They have discussed the role of the Organization in the history of global health, examined health and social change in countries such as Russia and South Africa, and looked at health propaganda and public information, from early documentaries to more sophisticated film-making. The historians have also traced the Organization’s part in fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and even probed into the history of evolutionary biology.
Furthermore, they have challenged WHO’s own view of itself in relation to its work on primary health care. This coincides with the 30th anniversary of the international conference in Alma-Ata (now Almaty), Kazakhstan, in 1978 that led to the adoption of primary health care – “health for all” – in many countries. Today, a reinvigoration of primary health care is one of WHO’s key new policies.
By the end of last year, there had been 18 such lunchtime seminars typically attended by a mix of current and former WHO staff members, representatives of other institutions, such as the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Geneva, visiting students and interns. What rapidly became clear from these seminars was the depth and breadth of interest in health history within the Organization that had been until then largely untapped. They had a wider impact, attracting historians from countries such as Canada, Denmark, Peru, Sweden, the USA and Zambia.
In addition, they attracted the support of the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine in London. As a result, the Centre is helping stage the WHO 60th Anniversary Global Health Histories seminars series, which began in March and will run until the end of 2008, with a total of ten presentations. Topics include asthma, climate change, nursing, psychotherapy and antiretroviral therapy.
“We wanted to back this project because we believe the way that WHO is promoting health history is really exciting and worthwhile,” says Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya, a senior representative of the Centre. “This series of seminars deals with some of the most important elements of international and global public health. It is also fitting that a series of historical lectures intended to celebrate WHO’s 60th anniversary accommodates presentations dealing with its celebrated role in global smallpox eradication and its continuing battles against damaging infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and TB.”
Apart from the seminars, WHO will publish later this year a new volume of its own official history – “The Third Ten Years”. This is a sequel to two existing volumes that together span the first twenty years of the Organization. The author is Dr Socrates Litsios, a retired senior scientist at WHO and a historian in his own right. He has spent much of the last three years immersing himself in the official records and archive documents of the Organization, interviewing former colleagues and tracking down other sources in order to write the book.
“Looking back, we can see just how important
WHO’s third decade actually was,” says
Dr Litsios. “By the end of it, smallpox eradication
had been achieved. At almost the
same time, another great landmark in the
history of health was about to be established
– the preparations were under way for that
first international conference on primary
health care, in Alma-Ata.”
Other publications are being planned, including a biography of former Director-General Dr Jong-wook Lee, a national of South Korea, who died in office in May 2006. This work is being jointly supported by WHO and the Korean Foundation for International Health Care.
A collection of oral histories is being prepared through extensive, carefully-structured interviews with leading figures in many of the most important health events of the world in the last sixty years. These are being recorded and transcribed and will be archived for posterity and made available to historians, researchers and others, with the potential also to be published or broadcast. This work is being led former WHO librarian Mrs Carole Modis on behalf of the Association of Former Staff Members.
“For years we tried to raise awareness at WHO of the importance of historical and archival information and its value to current decisions,” she says. “A first step was when WHO hired a qualified archivist. “Then the establishment of the GHH initiative made it possible for the first time to have a coherent and ongoing programme with the necessary resources. The Association of Former WHO Staff appreciates in particular the manner in which GHH has been able to find ways to use the encyclopedic expertise of retired WHO staff and has promoted the recognition of their contribution to the cause of global public health.”
Thomson Prentice is co-coordinator of the Global Health Histories project and is also managing editor of the World Health Report at WHO.