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How does the WHO help the world's most vulnerable people?

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 April 2020 17:15 GMT

World Health Organization (WHO) officials and Ugandan health workers speak to members of the community before carrying out the first vaccination exercise against the Ebola virus in Kirembo village, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in Kasese district, Uganda June 16, 2019. REUTERS/James Akena

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Founded in 1948, the WHO has been instrumental in tackling diseases in countries across Africa and Asia

U.S. President Donald Trump came under fire on Wednesday for instructing his administration to halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) after criticising its handling of the COVID-19 disease pandemic.

The decision was panned globally including by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who said it was not the time to cut resources to the WHO "or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus".

But what is the WHO and how will these changes affect the world's most vulnerable people?

What is the World Health Organization?

The WHO is a U.N. specialized agency - an independent international body that works with the United Nations. It was set up in 1948 and is the leading global authority on health and disease, working with 194 member states in 150 countries across six regions. 

What does the WHO do?

The WHO partners with member states, the United Nations, international organisations and researchers to promote global health initiatives. The WHO protects air, food and water safety and coordinates the global response to health emergencies as well as fighting infectious diseases like HIV and influenza and non-communicable diseases like cancer.   

Who is involved in the WHO and who funds it?

Delegations from member states attend an annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, of the WHO's decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, to determine the policies of the organisation in collaboration with health experts.

The WHO is funded by the United Nations as well as member states, private donors and international organisations.

The United States is the biggest overall donor to the WHO, contributing more than $400 million in 2019, or about 15% of its budget.

What vulnerable groups does the WHO seek to help, and where?

The WHO has been instrumental in tackling some of the most common diseases in vulnerable countries across Africa and Asia such as tuberculosis (TB) and malaria, which are largely eradicated in wealthier nations.

So-called "poverty diseases" largely ravage low-income countries, with the situation made worse by the effects of poverty including poor nutrition and sanitation and lack of access to clean drinking water and health education. 

As the U.N. launched its humanitarian response plan to tackle the coronavirus last month, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock warned "to leave the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries to their fate would be both cruel and unwise".

Trump's announcement of funding cuts comes as humanitarian groups urged donors to give more to help the coronavirus response in vulnerable countries.

"While other world leaders are pledging more support to the WHO, President Trump’s proposal to slash their resources at this moment of crisis will undermine efforts to save lives and halt the spread of the virus," Amnesty International Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In trying to distract from criticisms of his own administration’s response, President Trump is undermining global efforts to protect people from one of the worst health crises in over a century."

Has the WHO helped vulnerable groups in previous pandemics?

Since its establishment, the WHO has been on the front line in the response to disease outbreaks across Africa and Asia, including HIV, Ebola and dengue fever.

Through community engagement, enhanced diagnosis, improved data and surveillance, the WHO has helped to address these health issues, largely made possible by funding from members like the United States.

As Trump looks to pull out funding, experts worry this will hamper the response to the coronavirus in the world's most vulnerable countries, who are already at higher risk.

"The (WHO) does essential work helping to deliver medical supplies, training hospital staff and health workers, and helping vulnerable countries prepare to face the virus," said Anissa Toscano, vice president of humanitarian leadership and response at Mercy Corps.

"This is not the time to withdraw funding from the global health response ... It is counter-productive and counter-intuitive to cut global health funding amidst the greatest public health crisis of our lifetime."

Sources: World Health Organization, Reuters, UNICEF.

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