The revised International Health Regulations (IHR) enter into force on Friday, 15 June. The Regulations consist of a comprehensive and tested set of rules and procedures which will help to make the world more secure from threats to global health. They were agreed by the World Health Assembly in 2005 and represent a major step forward in international public health security.
The Regulations establish an agreed framework of commitments and responsibilities for States and for WHO to invest in limiting the international spread of epidemics and other public health emergencies while minimizing disruption to travel, trade and economies. Under the revised IHR, States will be required to report all events that could result in public health emergencies of international concern, including those caused by chemical agents, radioactive materials and contaminated food.
In the early 21st Century, demographic, economic and environmental pressures have created a unique combination of conditions that allow new and re-emerging infectious diseases to spread as never before. The experience of recent decades shows that no individual country can protect itself from diseases and other public health threats. All countries are vulnerable to the spread of pathogens and their economic, political and social impact.
The emergence of SARS in 2003 demonstrated as no previous disease outbreak ever had how interconnected the world has become and how rapidly a new disease can spread. This shared vulnerability has also created a need for collective defences and for shared responsibility in making these defences work. This is the underlying principle of the International Health Regulations.
“SARS was a wake-up call for all of us. It spread faster than we had predicted and was only contained through intensive cooperation between countries which prevented this new disease from gaining a foothold,” said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “Today, the greatest threat to international public health security would be an influenza pandemic. The threat of a pandemic has not receded, but implementation of the IHR will help the world to be better prepared for the possibility of a pandemic.”
The Regulations build on the recent experience of WHO and its partners in responding to and containing disease outbreaks. Recent experience shows that addressing public health threats at their source is the most effective way to reduce their potential to spread internationally. The Regulations will help to ensure that outbreaks and other public health emergencies of international concern are detected and investigated more rapidly and that collective international action is taken to support affected States to contain the emergency, save lives and prevent its spread.
WHO has already developed and built an improved events management system to manage potential public health emergencies. WHO has also built strategic operations centres at its Geneva Headquarters and in Regional Offices around the world, which are available round-the-clock to manage emergencies. WHO has also been working with its partners to strengthen the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which brings together experts from around the world to respond to disease outbreaks.
“Implementing the IHR is a collective responsibility and depends on the capacity of all countries to fulfil the new requirements,” said Dr David Heymann, WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases. “WHO will help countries to strengthen the necessary capacities to fully implement the Regulations. This is our responsibility and we expect that the entire international community is committed to the same goal of improving international public health security.”