The World Health Organization and the U.S.: A brief history of collaboration

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Dr. Kenneth Castro

The following is a guest post by Kenneth G. Castro, MD, FIDSA

Since its formation in 1948, WHO has relied heavily on the U.S. for collaborations and technical expertise.

Dating back to 1902, the U.S. was a founding and member state of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau (now PAHO). Also, in 1946, the U.S. was among the “18 countries elected to membership of the Interim Commission of the World Health Organization” (In alphabetic order: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, India, Liberia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Peru, the Ukrainian SSR, the USSR, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Venezuela and Yugoslavia). The U.S. also collaborated with USSR (during the Cold War), other countries, and WHO to successfully provide the research, evidence-basis, and support for the implementation of the smallpox eradication campaign until its success and the World Health Assembly declared the disease eradicated in 1980.

Since then, the U.S. has frequently embedded subject matter experts in WHO to directly support the mission of that UN global health agency. In fact, over the years the U.S. has supported and collaborated in all aspects of WHO activities, including efforts to eradicate polio and tackle HIV, hepatitis, vaccine preventable diseases, malaria, TB, other infectious foodborne and respiratory diseases, and noncommunicable diseases.


  • Because it is “the right thing to do.”

Large U.S. investments to advance infectious disease-specific global health programs rely on normative guidance and evidence-based policies from WHO to justify training and procurement of laboratory diagnostics, immunizations, and treatment modalities (e.g., the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, the U.S. Agency for international Development, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and its Fogarty International Center, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, and the Global Fund to Fight HIV, TB, and Malaria, as well as efforts targeting neglected tropical diseases and other vaccine-preventable diseases).

  • Because of “enlightened self-interest.”

Diseases know no borders and improving the status of global health reduces risks to our citizens when they travel elsewhere, and reduces the risk of importation of infectious diseases (principles now codified in the 2005 International Health Regulations).

Because many global health problems directly impact U.S. citizens and residents (e.g., measles, other vaccine-preventable diseases, malaria, TB, viral hepatitis, infectious food borne and respiratory diseases, antimicrobial resistance, and emerging diseases of pandemic potential), the departure by United States as one of WHO member states comes at our own national peril.

Kenneth G. Castro, M.D., FIDSA, is a professor at the Hubert Department of Global Health & Department of Epidemiology, Rollins School of Public Health, Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, School of Medicine at Emory University. He is a former Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service.



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