WOAH celebrates 100th anniversary

International organization continues its commitment to science, transparency, and the One Health approach

The World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as the OIE) recently celebrated 100 years as the global authority on animal health.

The centennial anniversary took place on January 25, with WOAH hosting a 100th-anniversary online event to commemorate the history, evolution, and vision for the future of animal health and welfare worldwide.

WOAH began as a united effort by nations to fight rinderpest—a contagious viral disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals—in the early 1920s. The disease was causing devastating losses to animal populations, primarily cattle and buffalo, and severely disrupting economies, particularly across Africa, Europe, and Asia. This initiative laid the foundation for WOAH’s leading role in protecting international animal health and welfare.

A woman inspects tanks of trout fry on an aquaculture farm
A woman inspects tanks of trout fry on an aquaculture farm. By monitoring and distributing information about infectious animal diseases for 100 years, the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH, founded as the OIE) is at the forefront of global health. The organization safeguards world trade by publishing health standards for international trade in animals and animal products.

WOAH has missions of ensuring transparency in the global animal disease situation, safeguarding world trade by publishing health standards for international trade of animals and animal products, and encouraging international solidarity in the control of animal diseases, in particular by improving the legal framework and resources of national veterinary services.

The organization, which is headquartered in Paris, has since grown to 183 member countries. Formerly known as the Office International des Epizooties, it was renamed the World Organization for Animal Health in 2003, while at the same time retaining the historical acronym OIE. In May 2022, the organization underwent a comprehensive rebranding campaign and OIE was dropped in favor of the new acronym, WOAH.

“What began as a humble initiative has evolved into a multifaceted organization addressing not only terrestrial animal health, but also extending its reach to aquatic animal health, wildlife health, and the broader spectrum of One Health initiatives,” said Dr. Monique Eloit, director general of WOAH. “The relevance of our work is now recognized internationally, beyond the community of animal health stakeholders, as we have progressively adopted a more holistic approach.”

WOAH history

The early 1900s saw a significant expansion in the international trade of live animals and their products. In 1920, rinderpest unexpectedly appeared in Belgium for the first time as a result of the shipment of infected zebu cattle from India to Brazil via Antwerp. This led to a greater understanding among countries that there was a need to fight animal diseases at a global level. At the International Conference on Epizootic Diseases of Domestic Animals in May 1921, representatives from 43 countries called for the establishment of an international organization to coordinate responses against infectious animal diseases.

On January 25, 1924, 28 nations signed an international agreement that created the Office International des Epizooties. By 1927, the agreement had been ratified by 24 countries, and later that year, the first General Session of the new organization was held.

A year later, the organization’s first conference met in Geneva, Switzerland. This committee of eight experts developed a document that established the basis for an international sanitary policy, according to WOAH. It stated that “only sanitary documents emanating from nations with correctly organized veterinary services can be considered as providing importers with sufficient guarantees.”

Logo: WOAH 100th anniversary

WOAH continued to establish itself as a reference organization by partnering with groups such as the International Federation for Animal Health (IFAH) and reaching agreements with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) in the 1950s and 1960s. Also during that time, WOAH lent its support to the first attempts to harmonize animal health legislation after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Community in 1957.

Another defining moment came in 1994 when an international treaty was signed that established the World Trade Organization (WTO). This treaty included the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement), which set out the basic rules for food safety and animal and plant health standards governing international trade. Importantly, the SPS Agreement defined WOAH (then known as OIE) as the global reference organization regarding animal health and zoonoses, thus positioning WOAH as the technical authority for disputes related to trade in live animals and their products.

The WOAH Terrestrial and Aquatic Animal Health Codes, which are under continual review by subject matter experts from around the world, serve as a basis for the organization’s authority, while its manuals provide a standardized approach to the diagnosis of diseases listed in the codes.  

“In embracing our past, we recognize the significant strides we've made in controlling contagious diseases, establishing animal health standards, and expanding our scope to encompass animal welfare, wildlife health, and responsible veterinary drug use,” Dr. Eliot said.

New threats

At the beginning of the 21st century, WOAH faced a new set of challenges, from new outbreaks of highly contagious animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease to the impacts of climate change on animal health.

But the new century also brought success. In 2011, a significant milestone was achieved with the eradication of rinderpest thanks to effective vaccination and biosecurity programs and collaboration with international partners. To date, rinderpest remains the only animal disease eradicated globally.

Driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the One Health Joint Plan of Action was launched in fall 2022 by the Quadripartite—the FAO, United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP), WHO, and WOAH—to improve the health of humans, animals, plants, and the environment while contributing to sustainable development.

The plan creates a framework that integrates systems and capacity so that the four intergovernmental organizations can collectively better prevent, predict, detect, and respond to health threats from a One Health perspective.

Today, WOAH has more dangers to address. Specifically, the threats posed by avian influenza, African swine fever, antimicrobial resistance, and the sustainability of animal production, according to the organization.

To help address these concerns, WOAH tracks the incidence of reportable diseases and collects and analyzes the latest scientific information on animal disease detection and control. This information is shared with member countries to help them control and eradicate these diseases within their own borders. Guidelines are prepared by the network of 246 WOAH Collaborating Centers and Reference Laboratories across the world.

WOAH says it will continue to evolve, adapt, and collaborate with members, the scientific community, and the veterinary workforce. It also aims to further engage policymakers who play a role in strengthening the future of global animal health and welfare.

A version of this story appears in the May 2024 print issue of JAVMA

Visit the World Organisation for Animal Health website to send well wishes in honor of its 100th anniversary and learn more about its commitment to global animal health.