Turn of The Century: A Report on the upcoming 100th WHO Global Health Histories Seminar

Posted on 15 November 2016

As the WHO Global Health Histories seminar series reaches its 100th event this December, we look back on its birth, growth and widening internationalisation.

Since it was launched in late 2004, the enduring mission of the Global Health Histories seminar series (GHH) has been based on the idea that understanding the history of health, especially during the last 60 years, can help the global public health community respond to present-day challenges. It was envisaged as a way of bringing together academics, policymakers, public health professionals and members of the public from all over the world to foster useful discussions on topical global health issues, and create opportunities for historians and policy makers to connect with and learn from each other. The seminar series can be seen to reflect policy makers’ recognition of the valuable insights that historical research can provide. As the input of historians, humanities scholars and social scientists is increasingly incorporated into discussions about the most inclusive means of planning and delivering global health care programmes and community engagement, these interventions become more inclusive. Reflecting on this in relation to the GHH series about to mark its 100th event, Dr Simon Chaplin, Director of Culture & Society at the Wellcome Trust said: “Wellcome is proud to have supported the WHO Global Health Histories programme, which has demonstrated the value of bringing together humanities and social science researchers with policy-makers to reflect on the key health challenges we face, and as we reach the milestone of 100 events we look forward to its continued impact.”

Over the course of 100 events the Global Health Histories seminar series has provided a framework for wide-ranging, cutting edge academic research to be made available freely to policymakers beyond the conventional academic repositories. Broadening out from a history of the WHO, the project has provided a forum where important, and sometimes challenging ideas, can be discussed independently and critically in an open forum. Dr Hooman Momen, former Coordinator of WHO Press and the responsible officer for WHO Global Health Histories, commented that: "The series has now reached the important milestone of 100 seminars after more than 10 years of continuous activity. The seminars and associated publications have and continue to be a rich archive for students and policy workers trying to understand the history, evolution and future of Global Health."

Technological advances have meant that since 2009 the seminars have been broadcast live online, allowing anyone who wished to tune in and interact with the seminar by joining the discussion; take-up from within public and private spheres has been impressive, with participation from most  countries from around the world. The advent of Twitter and YouTube further broadened the opportunities for wider participation. This interaction is part of an ongoing effort to further internationalise the series. Hosted in WHO HQ for much of its life, since 2013 events have been held in Copenhagen and Cairo, and 2016 saw the first GHH seminar held with a WHO Country Office, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, hosted in collaboration with the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka and the UNICEF national office. 2016 also saw the first expansion to the Americas. The 97th GHH seminar, on Leprosy, held on May 6th, was hosted by partners at Fiocruz in Brazil and involved partners from the Brazilian federal government and the Pan American Health Organization/WHO Regional Office for the Americas. At the time Dr Niels Fietje of WHO Europe welcomed the expansion of the Global Health Histories seminars into other WHO Regional Offices and WHO Country Offices worldwide, allowing wider reach for the ‘rich mix of experts that include social scientists and humanities scholars, allowing WHO to examine key health challenges from novel perspectives’. After the success of seminar 97, it was announced that WHO EURO and CGHH, which is also the WHO Collaborating Centre for Global Health Histories, would continue to work with Fiocruz to host further seminars in the Americas, with the Casa Oswaldo Cruz taking the lead for the initiative in the Region under the able management of Professors Paulo Gadelha, Magali Romero Sa and  Marcos Cueto.

GHH 100 Poster

You can watch the 100th seminar live online. Details are available via the event webpage.

It is, therefore, appropriate that the upcoming 100th WHO GHH seminar will be hosted by Fiocruz, which marks the initiative’s commitment to working with and promoting international excellence. The event in Rio will be held in Spanish, while also livestreamed in English and Spanish for the international webinar audience. This momentous seminar will focus on ‘"Aedes aegypti": Old and New Sanitary Emergencies,’ in order to share expert understanding of historical and contemporary problems in sanitation relating to diseases spread by this mosquito, such as Zika or Chikungunya. Speakers from different institutions will present a variety of perspectives on these issues. In anticipation of this event, the team responsible for the seminars at Fiocruz stated that “Fiocruz is delighted to participate in this global partnership. The landmark 100th seminar represents a particularly important opportunity, as for over a century --and with intensity in last few years-- epidemic diseases transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as yellow fever, Dengue and Zika, have been dramatic and recurrent events in Brazil and much of Latin America. These diseases have revealed the shortcomings of sanitary infrastructures, informed sound public health responses and stimulated innovative medical research. In order to understand the complexity of mosquito control it is necessary to contrast past and contemporary processes, achievements and challenges.” You can find out more information about the event, including how to tune in, on the CGHH website.

The Global Health Histories seminar series is a collaboration between the Division of Information, Evidence, Research & Innovation (DIR) at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe, and the Centre for Global Health Histories (CGHH), which is part of the Department of History and a constituent member of Humanities Research Centre at the University of York. Dr Claudia Stein, Director of DIR at WHO EURO, described the GHH seminars as “A true inspiration for all involved in international public health. I have been following them since their inception in 2004 and am really proud that we in EURO are now providing a home for them”. Lawrence Black, Head of the Department of History at the University of York commented that the 100th Global Health Histories seminar represented a “real tribute to the team's initiative and ambition and the range of supporters like Wellcome and the WHO which it has brought together. The Department of History at York is very proud of its close relationship with them. This is transnational history, interdisciplinary engagement and public policy outreach at its finest. We look forward to the next century.” This praise was echoed by the University of York’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Professor Deborah Smith; “As a biomedical scientist, while not a historian, I have enjoyed and been hugely impressed by the range and depth of the WHO GHH seminars.  Given their initiation by colleagues at my home institution, their delivery is even more appreciated.  The University of York is proud to be a core partner in this innovative program that has changed perceptions of the importance of considering historical precedent in understanding real time global health issues.”

Generous support from the Wellcome Trust in 2012, in the shape of a major Senior Investigator Award for Professor Sanjoy Bhattacharya, has provided long-term funding for the WHO GHH series; this grant also allowed the groundwork for the creation of a unique WHO Collaborating Centre, the first of its kind in the UK and the world, which was given the responsibility to help several WHO Departments prepare policy advocacy and public engagement materials for major international events . You can find details of associated outreach publications, which have drawn on the topics and research carried out and presented through the GHH seminar series here.