WHO’s multilingual web site, publications and other resources ensure that health information reaches the people who need it, in the languages they can understand. This makes access to health information both more equitable – and effective.
Multilingual communication bridges gaps and fosters understanding between people. It allows WHO to more effectively guide public health practices, reach out to international audiences, and achieve better health outcomes worldwide. In this way, multilingual communication is an essential tool for improving global health:
“A multilingual WHO is better equipped to communicate health messages, to produce and disseminate health information and to generate, share and use knowledge about health in an equitable manner. It is also better placed to meet today’s major public health challenge: strengthening health systems in order to provide essential health care for all.”
Six official languages
WHO’s six official languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish – were established by a 1978 World Health Assembly resolution, turning multilingualism into a WHO policy. Since the adoption of a 1998 resolution, all Governing bodies documents and corporate materials have been made available online in all official languages.
Many of WHO’s key scientific publications – like the International Classification of Diseases, World Health Statistics, and the World Health Report – appear in six languages, and often many more.
The World Health Assembly’s most recent resolution on multilingualism, adopted in 2008, repeats the call for linguistic diversity across the Organization, and a five-year plan of action (2008-2013) is underway to meet this challenge.
WHO’s multilingual web site
WHO’s multilingual web site was launched in January 2005 in the six official languages. Web site content is carefully selected, edited, adapted and tailored to meet the needs of different readers and linguistic groups.
While all essential content is available in the six official languages, technical content – with the intention of rationalizing the use of resources – is deliberately published only in some languages. Decisions on what content to publish in which language(s) are made based on an analysis of the target audience needs, and in response to emergency situations and crises.
WHO’s multilingual web site is growing significantly; it is becoming the leading online global public health reference, connecting readers – in their own languages – to high quality health information.
Partnering for multilingualism
While WHO gives priority to its official languages, it recognizes that the world’s people live and work in many more. In order to broaden its reach to these audiences, WHO licenses external entities to translate and publish its health information in other languages.
WHO is always seeking opportunities to expand its multilingual information, and external publishers are key partners in this process. Health ministries, NGOs, universities and commercial publishing houses regularly request the rights to publish multilingual versions of WHO publications. As a result of these partnerships, WHO publications have been translated and published in over 63 different languages.
Connecting to multilingual content
Multilingual products are visible in many forms at WHO: web pages, publications, libraries, research tools, communications materials and official documents. Users can find and access these products in a number of languages using the structure of the web site, the search box, and the library interface (for publications in official and non-official languages).