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A medical worker examines a girl's head. On the left side, an x-ray image of a thorax is seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that health must be high up on the agenda of the UN: Diseases cross borders and affect citizens everywhere, and the absence of health has an impact on many of the UN’s goals such as economic development or reduced inequalities. COVID-19 interrupted even the core of the UN’s work in multilateralism: planes stood still, borders were closed, people were stigmatized because of their physical appearance.

As early as in 1948, the UN started working on global health issues. Member States founded the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN’s main body to promote healthy lifestyles and access to health care globally. WHO’s top priorities at the time were malaria, women’s and children’s health, tuberculosis, venereal disease, nutrition and environmental pollution. Many of those remain on WHO’s agenda today.

Several UN entities work on health care today, and they cover a vast range of activities to achieve the goal of health and wellbeing for all. Many UN projects in the medical field are coordinated in Geneva. Not only WHO is headquartered here, but also UNAIDS, the joint UN Programme to combat HIV and Aids, Gavi the vaccine alliance (in which UNICEF and WHO are main partners), and many international NGOs and programmes based in Geneva focus on health care.   

Research and classification

WHO’s science experts set the global agenda on health-related research. They identify knowledge gaps and emerging areas of concern. WHO collects and combines findings, giving access to life-saving information to governments and medical practitioners around the world. Since its creation, the organization identifies and classifies diseases – a starting point for all research activities, making it possible to gather statistical data on certain health conditions. This knowledge enables WHO to give recommendations about prevention and treatment of diseases.

In addition, the UN funds medical research to enhance knowledge and find solutions to combatting diseases. The “Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases” (based in Geneva) is one such example. It largely concentrates on diseases related to poverty. Through the programme, the UN sponsors research activities and helps find effective solutions, e.g., to break infection chains in affected countries.

Controlling disease outbreaks

The UN has had some remarkable successes in fighting infectious diseases which no country could have achieved on its own. WHO and UNICEF together supply vaccines to 45% of the world’s children, saving three million lives every year. Through its unmatched vaccination campaigns, the UN has eradicated, or is on the verge of eliminating, several diseases: Smallpox have been eradicated in 1979 while polio, although still existing, has been reduced by 99%.

The UN system responds to emerging diseases or elevated infection rates. In 1996, UNAIDS was founded as a reaction to the ravaging HIV pandemic. The organization works on reducing the number of new infections through awareness campaigns. It lobbies for global access to treatment and for further research to improve prevention and treatment options, and even a possible cure. Lastly, UNAIDS campaigns to end stigmatization of people living with HIV or AIDS.

In 2014, the UN deployed its first ever emergency health mission: Medical and technical staff from different UN entities travelled to West Africa in response to the deadly Ebola outbreak – a resource-intense, fast, flexible and cross-entity approach that helped contain the highly infectious disease.

Through its global network, WHO monitors the spread of diseases and alerts States of increased viral or bacterial spreading. For example, WHO declared the coronavirus disease a public health emergency of international concern in January 2020 and a pandemic in March 2020. This warning mechanism prompts governments to release financial and technical resources to counter the outbreak. In such a situation, WHO also issues health care advisories for governments and citizens.   

A health worker injects a patient in an outdoor setting. A group of people is sitting at a long table behind the two.


Government support

Universal healthcare

Currently, at least half of the world’s population does not have access to the health services they need. The UN supports governments in multiple ways to enable them to deliver better services to their citizens. In most countries, universal health coverage, that is access to and a financing system for health services for everyone, is a goal yet to be achieved. The UN assists countries which are moving to a public health care system. WHO trains civil servants in how to finance universal health coverage and assists governments in developing the necessary policies. UN entities also help determine the health care needs in each country and advise on medical equipment and supplies.

Equal access to life-saving medicine

The UN lobbies for equal access to medical care across the globe. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN urged industrial countries to donate vaccines to other states. WHO coordinated the distribution and UNICEF played a major role in the delivery of vaccines.

By May 2022, more than 11 billion vaccine doses had been given to people across the world, over 1.5 billion of which were shipped through COVAX, the UN’s COVID vaccination campaign.  

2 health care workers pack COVID-19 vaccines.

Emergency response

Emergencies, may they be natural disasters or outbreaks of conflicts and wars, bring about injuries and maladies, and stress a national health care system. Two things come together: hospitals and clinics may have been destroyed or are no longer accessible while the need for health care skyrockets. The UN’s emergency response system starts rolling upon the invitation of a country in need. WHO leads the health cluster which coordinates UN agencies and NGOs to assess the medical needs and provide health care. 

Good health and wellbeing

The UN firmly believes that health means much more than the absence of sickness. It is rather defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. Many, if not all UN entities, help work towards this state of holistic health.

UN-Habitat and the UN Environment Programme cooperate to achieve better living for people in green cities, with less air pollution, clean water supplies, waste management and access to natural spaces. The International Labour Organization, headquartered in Geneva, enforces workers’ rights, for example the right to leisure and recuperation, or the right to operate in a safe work environment.

While UNFPA works on sexual and reproductive health, UNICEF is dedicated to the wellbeing of children and their parents. The organization’s impact reaches from maternity wards, where UNICEF supplies midwifery kits and distinguishes baby friendly hospitals that enable breastfeeding from day one, to nutritional programmes for malnourished children, or protection systems for children in danger of physical or mental abuse.

UNHCR, the UN’s refugee organization, takes care of all needs of people who fled their home, including their medical and psychosocial care. FAO, UNDP and WFP work on healthy food supplies, helping to set up sustainable farming techniques or advising on healthy nutritional habits in different corners of the world.

5 women sit outside and prepare food.

Organizations working on health issues

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