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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960

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Joint FAO/WHO Nutrition Committee

As an inter-governmental health agency, the World Health Organization (WHO) was the culmination of a long tradition in international health that started in the mid 19th century and was institutionalised for the first time decades earlier with the founding of the Office Internationale d’Hygiene Publique (1907), the Health Organization of the League of Nations (1920) and the Health Division of the UNRRA.[1] The WHO originated in the United Nations Conference held in San Francisco in 1945 and was a logical consequence of the shaping of an international sphere after World War II. One year later representatives of 61 governments met at the International Health Conference in New York to draft and sign the WHO Constitution, establishing an Interim Commission to serve until the constitution could be ratified by the 26 member states of the United Nations. The Constitution came into force on April 7, 1948, and the first World Health Assembly took place in Geneva in June 1948, with the permanent organisation being officially established in September 1948.

From the outset, the work of the World Health Organization was carried out by three bodies: the World Health Assembly, the supreme authority, to which all Member States sent delegates; the Executive Board, the executive organ of the Health Assembly; and the Secretariat under the Director-General.

The scope of the WHO’s interests and activities exceeds that of any previous international health organization and includes, in addition to major projects relating to malaria, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, maternal and child health, nutrition, and environmental sanitation, special programmes on public health administration, epidemic diseases, mental health, professional and technical training, and other public-health subjects. It is also continuing work begun by earlier organizations on biological standardization, unification of pharmacopoeias, addiction-producing drugs, health statistics, international sanitary regulations, and the collection and dissemination of

technical information, including epidemiological statistics.[2]

During its first decade of existence the WHO carried out specific technical work in a number of fields related to nutritional health. Kwashiorkor, a deficiency disease described in 1935 in Jamaica, was one of the first problems addressed by the organisation. It is an acute form of childhood protein malnutrition, characterised by oedema, irritability, anorexia, ulcerating dermatoses and an enlarged liver with fatty infiltrates. Moreover, attention was paid to endemic goitre and iodine deficiency, pellagra, beriberi, ophthalmic diseases linked to malnutrition, heart diseases and others. The WHO and the FAO started working together to address nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition as direct and indirect causes of a wide range of diseases that mainly affected the population of poor countries. The WHO focused mainly on nutrition as affecting health, and the FAO tried to increase levels of nutrition, improve living standards, and attain improved efficiency in production, trade and distribution of foodstuffs and agricultural products. Both shared a common target, used a similar rhetoric, notwithstanding the fact that they focused on the problem of hunger from different and complementary perspectives.

  • [1] A general approach to the shaping of the international sanitary movement in Barona,J., Bernabeu, J., 2008, pp. 27-56. A special mention to the Office Internationald’Higiene Publique in the same book, pp. 83-88.
  • [2] Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition. Report on the First Session,Geneva, World Health Organization Technical Report Series No. 16, 1950, p. 1. Afirst version of the report on the first session in document WHO/NUT/2, 1 November1949, WHO Archives.
 
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