1902 - 2002: 100 Years of Pan-Americanism
by James Patrick Kiernan
As PAHO prepares to celebrate its centennial this year, a historian of the OAS recalls early efforts to forge a century of human progress in the Americas.
When U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt welcomed delegates to the First General International Sanitary Convention of the American Republics in Washington, D.C., in December 1902, his thoughts may have been at least partly focused some 2,000 miles away, on the unfinished Panama Canal.
That frustrating, monumental effort-which would become President Roosevelt's pet project-was emblematic of the burgeoning commercial ties among the American republics, but also of their growing vulnerability to the spread of disease. Abandoned by French interests 14 years earlier, the canal project had fallen victim largely to yellow fever, which along with malaria had killed some 20,000 workers. Only by controlling yellow fever (it was officially eradicated in Panama in 1905) would the Roosevelt administration be able to carry the canal to completion in 1914.
Yellow fever-and the control of epidemic diseases in general-was at the top of the agenda of the 1902 International Sanitary Convention as delegates from 11 countries gathered at Washington's New Willard Hotel. Dr. Carlos Finlay, a distinguished Cuban physician, presented a paper titled "Is the mosquito the only agent through which yellow fever is transmitted?" He argued that it was, and his then-controversial theory would eventually be the key to routing the disease. But in 1902 many fellow delegates resisted his conclusions.
Still, they shared his goals. By the end of the conference, Dr. Finlay and three others had been appointed to an organizing committee charged with setting up a new international health agency for the Americas.
"It shall be the duty of the International Sanitary Bureau," declared the convention's final resolution, "to lend its best aid and experience toward the widest possible protection of the public health of each of the said Republics, in order that disease may be eliminated and that commerce between said Republics may be facilitated."
Beginning in the mid-19th century, early efforts at inter-American cooperation had been aimed almost exclusively at regulating and stimulating hemispheric trade. But by the dawn of the 20th cen-tury, it had become urgent also to curtail the spread through maritime commerce of epidemic diseases such as yellow fever, cholera, and plague.
It was these interrelated mandates that led to the creation of the International Union of American Republics and the International Sanitary Bureau, precursors, respectively, to today's Organization of American States (OAS) and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Established more than three decades before the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO), PAHO and the OAS share the distinction of being the oldest continually functioning international organizations not only in the Americas but in the world.
For the past 100 years, the OAS and PAHO have grown and evolved together from virtually unstaffed, unhoused paper entities to world-class international organizations with thousands of international civil servants on their staffs. Together they have pioneered forms of interna-tional cooperation to improve health and social conditions in the Americas, sharing credit for many important accomplishments in the fight against poverty, ignorance, and disease.