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Coming to Terms with World Health

The League of Nations Health Organisation 1921-1946

Iris Borowy

The League of Nations Health Organisation was the first international health organisation with a broad mandate and global responsibilities. It acted as a technical agency of the League of Nations, an institution designed to safeguard a new world order during the tense interwar period. The work of the Health Organisation had distinct political implications, although ostensibly it was concerned «merely» with health. Until 1946, it addressed a broad spectrum of issues, including public health data, various diseases, biological standardization and the reform of national health systems. The economic depression spurred its focus on social medicine, where it sought to identify minimum standards for living conditions, notably nutrition and housing, defined as essential for healthy lives. Attracting a group of innovative thinkers, the organization laid the groundwork for all following international health work, effective until today.


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In November 2002, a strange, flu-like disease spread through Guangdong province in Southern China.1 For weeks, while the epidemic gathered strength, the rest of the world remained oblivious of these events. Only in mid February 2003 did the WHO receive a report from Chinese authorities about the disease and even then the message was that it was coming under control. On 26 February Dr. Carlo Ur- bani, WHO official in Viet Nam, was called to a Chinese-American patient at the French hospital in Hanoi. Alarmed at what he saw and suspecting a new outbreak of avian flu, Urbani alerted WHO headquarters in Geneva. Two weeks later, he died of the disease in a Bangkok hospital. By that time, it was obvious that an un­ known illness was rapidly infecting people in South-East Asia, apparently spreading from Hong Kong. It would later become clear that a medical doctor from Guang­ dong had taken the disease to Hong Kong and fallen ill while staying on the ninth floor of Metropole Hotel, where he had infected several other guests, who then took the pathogen with them to their respective places of origin. On 17 March there were 167 suspected cases and four deaths in seven countries, and the WHO activated its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). GOARN had been established in April 2000, connecting numerous institutes, organization and networks in charge of epidemics in order to establish guidelines as well as an infrastructure for rapid epidemic control.2 Through GOARN, the WHO...

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