The World Health Assembly has adopted new international health regulations which will significantly strengthen the WHO's ability to tackle global health emergencies. The World Health Organization says the new guidelines will allow it to more effectively and rapidly prevent the spread of diseases such SARS and avian flu.
The director general of the World Health Organization, Lee Jong-wook, calls the new regulations a major step forward for international health.
"New regulation will help protect the world against the international spread of disease… The new regulation ... helps to bring the international response to disease outbreak and other public health emergencies into the 21st century," said Lee Jong-wook.
The original regulations were enacted in 1969. They were designed to help monitor and control six serious infectious diseases-cholera, plague, yellow fever, smallpox, relapsing fever, and typhus.
The World Health Organization says the new rules will be able to tackle a broader range of newer disease including SARS and bird flu. Under the new procedures, states must inform the organization immediately of any outbreak of disease.
The World Health Organization began working on the new regulations in 2003 in the wake of worldwide scares from infectious diseases such as SARS and Ebola. China did not report an outbreak of SARS until months after its onset. By then, the disease had spread beyond its borders, causing great health fears and resulting in huge economic losses.
WHO regulations coordinator Max Hardiman says under the new rules states must alert the organization immediately of any epidemics. He notes it is now more difficult for countries to hide health events because information gets out quickly in the media and the Internet.
"So, there are good practical reasons for countries to want to be more transparent and more open with WHO about sharing information," he said. "Additionally, within the rules that they have just agreed, there are obligations that countries will take upon themselves that when WHO hears something that causes it concern that they will provide the necessary information to verify what is happening and that WHO can then use that information when necessary to protect public health globally."
The World Health Organization notes in the jet age, diseases spread easily and quickly to all corners of the world. It says the purpose of the new regulations is to ensure the maximum protection of people against the international spread of diseases, while minimizing interference with world travel and trade. But, when necessary, it says it now has the power to impose quarantines and travel restrictions on countries.