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WHO Global Health Histories: new seminars and initiatives for 2011

April 13, 2011
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Event report – by Thomson Prentice

A series of lunchtime seminars in 2011 marks the continuing expansion and development of the WHO Global Health Histories project (GHH), with ongoing support from the Wellcome Trust and the University of York.

The new series follows the successful conclusion of the 2010 seminars, which focused on a wide range of issues of emerging public health importance. They most often drew capacity audiences at the venues in WHO headquarters, as well as being broadcast as webinars on the internet. Almost 50 history seminars have now been held under the GHH banner in the last six years.

An innovation for 2011 is that the seminars in the first half of the year are providing background and potential input for the next World Health Report, due to be published in 2012, which will be on the theme of ‘research for health’. Although the Report has invariably drawn on history in its coverage of global health issues since its launch in 1995, this is the first time it will have a formal link with GHH. Subjects covered include infant growth and nutrition, antenatal care, health promotion, tobacco control, maternal care, childhood immunisation and food security. In the second half of the year, the theme of the seminars will be environmental health, with presentations on asbestos pollution and environmental law.

GHH was established in late 2004 and is located within the WHO Department of Knowledge Management and Sharing. Its mission is based on the principle that understanding the history of health, especially during the last 60 years, helps the global public health community to respond to the challenges of today and contribute to a healthier future for everyone, especially those most in need.

Through the seminars, publications and other initiatives, GHH promotes closer links and exchanges between health policy makers and decision takers, historians, researchers, scientists, academics, students and the general public. In the last few years, GHH has been building an international network of health historians with expertise in a wide variety of areas. The network now extends to all of the WHO’s six regional offices and boasts many of the best-known names in health history. Expertise represented here ranges from the postwar origins of the WHO itself, the influences on health of the Cold War and the end of the colonial era in several continents, to the failure of the global malaria eradication campaign in the 1960s and the successful eradication of smallpox.

GHH is led by WHO press coordinator Dr Hooman Momen, who introduces the seminars and oversees the development of the project. He said: “There is no doubt the seminars are very popular inside WHO and far beyond. Last year was an eventful one for GHH in several other ways. Work began on the official history of the fourth decade of WHO, 1978–1987, to complement the three previous volumes on previous decades.” Publication is expected by the end of 2011.

Dr Momen added: “In 2010 we also held a witness seminar to help mark the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control. This seminar was also sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and served as pilot to measure the interest in holding more such events at WHO. The outcome was considered a success by participants. A further witness seminar is being planned in 2011 on the antimalaria drug artemisinin.” Also planned for 2011 is a book on some of the public health achievements of the WHO, and this will be targeted towards a youth audience.

The Wellcome Trust continues to enthusiastically support the GHH seminars. This support has been personified by Dr Sanjoy Bhattacharya, recently appointed Reader in the History of Medicine at the University of York. He has been a key figure in helping the development of GHH since its earliest days, and has been involved in the overall organisation and support of the lunchtime seminars since 2008, initially with the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL.

He said: “The Department of History at the University of York is delighted, with the generous backing of the Wellcome Trust, to support the continued success and expansion of the Global Health Histories initiative. The seminars held in 2010 have taken the interactions between policy and academia to a new level, encouraging conversations that have had an impact on the work on both groups of speakers. They have also pointed to the great potential of stoking further interchanges of ideas between academic researchers and policy managers, both during the design and implementation of policy.”

Professor Thomas Baldwin, of the University of York, was one of the 2010 speakers, with a presentation on obesity and public health. Of the seminars in general he said: “In my experience these were very stimulating occasions with excellent discussion. The range of expertise from all around the world makes these meetings unique and provided me with a broader understanding of the issues than I have encountered at similar occasions in the UK.”

Thomson Prentice is former managing editor of the World Health Report and has helped organise the seminars since their inception. He is a freelance editor and writer.

Find out more about the 2011 seminars.

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