Dr. Halfdan Mahler passed away in Geneva on 14th December at the age of 93. Dr Mahler’s vision inspired the Alma Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care in 1978, and the related call for ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’ Dr.Mahler squarely placed health in the domain of the ‘public’. Dr.Mahler was a Danish physician who joined WHO in 1951 and went on to be elected thrice as the Director General of the organisation, between 1973 and 1988. Before moving to the organisation’s headquarters in Geneva he worked for a decade in India in the National Tuberculosis programme in a mutually respectful relationship with national counterparts.
When Dr.Mahler moved to Geneva in 1962 WHO was very different from its current state. It was still recognized as the leader in international health. Dr.Mahler’s later dissatisfaction with the demise of WHO’s leading role (and the usurpation of this role by agencies such as the World Bank and private foundations such as the Gates Foundation) was clear in his address to the 61st World Health Assembly in 2008 when he said: “Most importantly, the very first constitutional function of WHO reads: ’To act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.’ Please do note that the Constitution says ’the” and not ’a’ directing and coordinating authority”. The 1960s and 70s were the ‘cold war’ period with the then Soviet Union and the United States vying with each other to assume leadership. It was also the era of ‘disease control’ when health systems were primarily designed to control infectious diseases through what were known as ‘vertical programs’.