The World Health Organization (WHO) is generally the first place the world turns for information on potential international health emergencies. In addition to WHO’s roster of health experts and its decades of experience with health threats, it also plays a central role in carrying out the International Health Regulations (IHR), a global framework adopted in 2005 to help improve global public health security.
What are the International Health Regulations?
A total of 196 countries have agreed to abide by the International Health Regulations with the goal of identifying and responding to global health risks early, in order to better prevent the spread of disease and manage outcomes. These risks can range from infectious diseases, to food safety issues, to health emergencies caused by natural disasters, to chemical or radiological threats, to animal-borne disease, such as the avian influenza that we currently see circulating in China.
Under the IHR framework, WHO maintains a global information system to coordinate international response to public health threats. The regulations also specify that countries must have core capacities related to national surveillance and response systems and to securing points of entry, such as borders, ports, and airports.
Monitoring and Responding
WHO has helped develop a global system for surveillance and for sharing information in response to threats. This system, called the Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network, depends on WHO working closely with countries to identify risks early on.
- At WHO headquarters, Dr. Isabelle Nuttall, Director of the IHR Coordination Department at WHO, and her team constantly monitor news reports around the world to identify potential threats.
- From the Strategic Health Operations Centre – or SHOC – they detect approximately 400 “events” per year, with about 170 of these requiring follow-up action.
- Each country also has a designated person, usually based within the Ministry of Health, that reports into an Event Information Site and works with WHO’s regional IHR teams to verify whether detected threats are, in fact, real.
- With the help of more than 300 partner organizations and institutions in the response network, WHO can assess the risk, communicate information about it to the media and public, and then determine how best to manage the risk, relying on its experts and countries’ own capacity to respond.
- In many situations, WHO goes beyond offering support in assessing and sharing information about threats from headquarters. It also deploys experts to countries to conduct active surveillance as part of mobile teams, to help collect samples, set up isolations wards, organize safe burials, coordinate logistics or security, handle media, or assist countries in other ways.
Since the IHR went into effect in 2007, they have helped the world better respond to emergencies such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic and the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
The world cannot avoid public health emergencies, but thanks to the critical work of WHO and the IHR, the world is better prepared to minimize the impact of these health threats.