New regulations to tackle disease outbreaks given the red light by the WHO

The recent outbreaks of communicable diseases such as SARS and avian flu in particular, have prompted the United Nations health agency’s policy-making body to adopt a new set of regulations concerning responses from Governments and international bodies when new diseases emerge and old ones reappear.

The original International Health Regulations which were agreed on in 1969, over 30 years ago, were especially designed to monitor and control six serious infectious diseases - cholera, plague, yellow fever, smallpox, relapsing fever and typhus. The agency says the new regulations now also include such diseases as polio and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and commit governments to notify the World Health Organization (WHO) of their occurrence.

The regulations, which will come into effect in two years for the 192 members of the World Health Assembly, also include a guide for countries to decide whether an outbreak constitutes a public health event of international concern. This should help governments to decide if an outbreak is serious, unusual, or unexpected, and to evaluate the risk of international spread and whether or not to impose international travel or trade restrictions.

The member countries will also have to assess their abilities to identify, verify and control public health events and upgrade those capacities within a fixed timeframe.

Dr. Anarfi Asamoa-Baah, WHO Assistant Director-General in charge of communicable diseases, says the new regulations bring disease control into the twenty-first century, and with the new framework, the work of controlling outbreaks can be more effectively supported. He says the regulations provide WHO with new, clearly defined roles and responsibilities in their efforts to help countries to respond to disease outbreaks.

The initiative means that the capacities of WHO offices around the world will be strengthened. By working with the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), a technical collaboration network of Governments and medical and humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGO), WHO will continue to provide operational support to countries in identifying and responding to disease outbreaks.

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