SEATTLE, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth issues regarding global health protocols and policies. As the United Nations’ agency for international public health, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been the most influential international health authority in the past few months of the pandemic. Particularly in informing people worldwide on the health precautions they should take. Thus, understanding global health organizations’ authority on health law, the history of international health law and these establishments’ futures are vital in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Beginning of the World Health Organization
When tracing the WHO’s history, one finds that it was the International Sanitary Conferences (ISC) that began global health efforts. The ISC was a series of 14 conferences that started in 1851 and ended in 1938. World health professionals from counties worldwide would gather in these conferences to discuss the management of infectious diseases prominent at the time. Most conferences included discussions on yellow fever, bubonic plague and cholera. However, the most outstanding achievement of ISC was the convention for preventing cholera with proper hygiene, similar to the suggestions made by WHO for COVID-19. Following the several extensions of the conferences, such as the Pan-American Sanitary Bureau and the Office International d’Hygiene Publique, the Health Organizations of the League of Nations was developed and molded into the WHO after World War II.
The WHO promised global health unity upon its constitution in 1948 by stating, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,” according to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights under article 25.
Creating Global Health Law
The field of global health law seeks to benefit all people and provide universal access to adequate healthcare, despite determining factors like nationality or race. This is particularly evident in the writing process of WHO’s constitution. When the WHO first began, the 51 nation members insisted on using the term “world” instead of “international” to emphasize the need for a more robust health plan for the world’s citizens.
Today, global health law is understood as seeking to meet three obligations of world health: respecting, protecting and fulfilling one’s right to health. International health lawyers are often working to improve health in areas where there is discrimination of care, harmful medical treatment or environmental risks. Moreover, because global health law has its foundations in human rights, international health lawyers work to enforce treaties that help sustain or promote health in the world’s nations.
Today, the field of global health law has become more critical as globalization becomes more prominent. The dispersal of products worldwide and the blurring of cultural boundaries have made health management at a global level more vital to ensuring the WHO’s mission. Though many people may think of COVID-19 prevention and maintenance measures as the WHO’s staple project, there were previous attempts and successes at helping the world’s citizens improve their standard of living.
Tobacco Control for the World’s Health
The control of tobacco use offers an excellent modern example of global health laws contributing to the creation of world citizens in an age of globalization.
Following the discovery of tobacco’s harmful health effects, such as cancer, a treaty was signed in 2003 by the WHO members during the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The framework worked to reduce the demand for tobacco worldwide by enforcing taxes, creating clear packaging and labeling and raising the overall public awareness of the health risks of tobacco use. The WHO globally addressed the rising consumption of tobacco products to lower the number of severe health conditions caused by tobacco use.
The Future of Global Health
Because of the increasing globalization and dissolving of borders regarding diseases, products and practices, global health lawyers are becoming more abundant. This is most evident in the growing number of universities developing graduate programs for international health policies and law. In Washington, D.C., Georgetown University has a master of laws degree called National and Global Health Law, allowing students to choose from more than 35 courses about global health. The importance of global health legal skills has become more apparent, especially with the WHO’s vital role in the international health management of COVID-19.
Understanding the history and the current state of global health law is essential for any global citizen. It can add perspective on the evolving health issues today occurring beyond national borders. As the world continues to become more aware of international health organizations’ efforts, it can better defend the human right to health.