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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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III. The Social Determinanas of Health


III. THE SOCIAL DETERMINANTS OF HEALTH 1. Establishing Health Systems One major reason for a change of direction in the LNHO agenda was that national administrations asked for it. As mentioned, governments had for some years re­ quested advice about suitable policies diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria or regarding overriding issues like infant welfare. This demand for LNHO support gained a new quality when some governments asked for general help for the fun­ damental reformation or their existing public health system. Greece Greece was first. Maybe it was Greek memories of the work of the Epidemic Commission in 1923 which made the Minister of Public Health ask for LNHO aid when Greece faced two major health problems in 1928, one long-term and the other acute. As an endemic problem, tuberculosis thrived in the overcrowded con­ ditions, in which most refugees still lived, and Greek authorities first appealed to the LNHO to help the Greek Administration organize an efficient anti-Tb cam­ paign among the refugee population and in the country at large.1 In the summer of 1928, conditions were exacerbated by an acute epidemic of dengue fever, which kept parts of the country in brutal grip: During August and September 1928, some 86 per cent of the total population in Athens and the Piraeus suffered from dengue, includ­ ing 90 per cent of the personnel of the public health services, 83.5 per cent of the staff of the banks, 82.5 per cent of the employees of factories and business firms...

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