Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 14-December-2007, Vol 120 No 1267
The new International Health Regulations: a revolutionary change in global health security
Michael G Baker, Andrew M Forsyth
On 15 June 2007 the most comprehensive global agreement ever developed for the management of emerging human health hazards came into force in 193 countries, including New Zealand. This agreement, the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR 2005) had been adopted by the World Health Assembly on 23 May 2005.1 A full copy of the Regulations is available on the World Health Organization (WHO) website (http://www.who.int/csr/ihr/en/).
This paper briefly describes the reasons for revision of the IHR, summarises the main changes, and describes what they mean for New Zealand.
The IHR 2005 became binding international law for all member states of the WHO 2 years after the formal notification of their adoption, unless a state advised that they rejected them or made a reservation. New Zealand was among the overwhelming majority of WHO member states that did not lodge such an objection.
Only three countries tendered qualifications to the IHR 2005, and only in the case of the United States were these reservations potentially important (the US reserved against the IHR 2005 to the extent that it will give effect to the core capacities in accordance with its constitutional arrangements for the demarcation of responsibilities between federal and state governments).
The IHR 2005 is a vastly different agreement to the previous version (IHR 1969) that it replaced.2 It represents an historic development for international law on public health.3 WHO began revising the IHR in 19954 and this work accelerated following severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003. New Zealand participated actively in the review process, including the formal inter-governmental negotiating sessions in Geneva in 2004 and 2005.
The negotiation process saw some changes, notably: the removal of explicit references to intentional releases of biological, chemical, and radiological agents (though such events are still covered by wording in Article 7); a reluctance from some quarters to rely solely on a risk assessment process for identifying which events to notify to WHO; and concerns about the costs of implementing the new regime. However, the core direction of the revisions was accepted by all member states.
Updating the IHR has been driven by concerns about increasing global health threats and the need to incorporate more effective surveillance and control practices to combat these threats. Originally adopted in 1951,5 and last substantially changed in 1969,6 the previous IHR (IHR1969) was recognised as inadequate by the mid-1990s, if not earlier.7
Like the new IHR, the IHR 1969 included articles on notification of specified diseases, control measures, and provisions for travellers, points of entry, and conveyances (aircraft, ships, trains, road vehicles). However, the scope of the IHR 1969 was severely constrained as its provisions applied to just three named diseases (cholera, plague, yellow fever) and it had little flexibility for responding to other current and emerging health threats such as pandemic influenza.
The experience with SARS in 2003 demonstrated the inter-dependence of countries in the detection, assessment and management of public health threats.8 There is considerable evidence that the global spread of epidemics can only be inhibited by a rapid and focused response.9 Although the response to SARS has been hailed as a success for international collaboration in infectious disease control, there were features of this disease that made it relatively containable.10,11
Other transmissible diseases such as pandemic influenza will be much harder to manage. Even for that disease, modelling work has shown that it may be possible to contain an outbreak with geographically targeted prophylaxis and social distancing. However, the effectiveness of these containment measures still depends critically on rapid identification and response.12,13
Global environmental and social changes may also be creating conditions where new emerging diseases threats are more likely.14,15 The high speed and steadily growing volume of international traffic makes the threat of disease spread a potentially greater risk than during the era of mass migration by sea when previous forms of the IHR were first developed. One of the predicted consequences of global climate change is an increase in the burden of emerging infectious diseases.15
Globalisation more generally has created an environment where international law and global governance approaches are being increasingly considered.16
Table 1. Important features of the International Health Regulations 2005
Figure 1. Decision instrument from the International Health Regulations 2005 (simplified from Annex 2). Reproduced from reference.17
The stated purpose of the Regulations ...are to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risk, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade (Article 2). The IHR 2005 agreement contains a wide range of new measures to support this goal (summarised in Table 1).
The most dramatic of these changes is the new surveillance system this agreement establishes, which goes far beyond what the IHR 1969 contained.17 Where the previous IHR applied to just three named diseases, the new IHR agreement is concerned with any public health risk that may adversely affect the health of human populations.
To encapsulate this concept it defines a new legal event, the Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) which ...means an extraordinary event which is determined...(i) to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and (ii) to potentially require a coordinated international response (Article 1). Under the IHR 2005, states are required to notify all events that may constitute a PHEIC.
The IHR 2005 agreement (Annex 2) includes a risk-based decision instrument that states are required to use in assessing events that may represent a PHEIC (Figure 1). Under this framework, even a single case of smallpox, polio, SARS, or human influenza caused by a new subtype would be notifiable. Other diseases would be assessed according to four decision criteria and would be notifiable if they met any two of these (Figure 1).
Where the previous IHR agreement focused exclusively on formal notifications from WHO member states, the new Regulations specify that WHO may use surveillance data from any available source, including media reports. This important change is consistent with a more globalised world where information of all kinds is often communicated fastest through unofficial channels.18,19
As well as specifying responsibilities for surveillance, response, and points of entry, the IHR 2005 also specify the capacities that countries must develop to carry out these activities. The provisions for regulating points of entry, conveyances, and travellers represent an important updating of requirements, but are more evolutionary than revolutionary. The IHR 2005 agreement retains some of the ‘tried and true’ provisions from the IHR 1969, such as vector control and pratique (permission for an arriving craft to unload cargo or disembark travellers).
Like most international agreements, the IHR 2005 offers important benefits for participating states, but inevitably there are obligations and associated costs, including some loss of national sovereignty.3
Probably the most important benefit from the new Regulations is the greater level of global health security that will come from having a coordinated global surveillance and response system for emerging health threats. Because of the heightened risk of an influenza pandemic, the World Health Assembly in May 2006 called upon member states to immediately comply with relevant provisions of the IHR 2005 in relation to influenza.20 There are also the benefits to trade and commerce from having well standardised processes for managing borders, conveyances, and travellers.21
The obligations of the IHR 2005 agreement include complying with its processes and developing and maintaining specified capacities. These capacities largely relate to surveillance, response, and points of entry. Building these domestic public health capacities is likely to assist countries to better manage routine and endemic health risks on an ongoing basis, as well as helping them to identify and report potential PHEIC.
The IHR focal point for New Zealand is the Ministry of Health where this function is performed primarily by the Office of the Director of Public Health, including application of the Decision Instrument when required. Few events in New Zealand are likely to meet the threshold for assessment as a potential PHEIC. Far more common will be events that represent evidence of a public health risk outside the territory of the reporting country that may cause international disease spread. Such events include imported human cases, vectors, and contaminated goods (Article 9). The IHR 2005 require New Zealand to report such events to the WHO within 24 hours of receipt of such evidence.
The new Regulations specify that states assess the ability of existing national structures and resources to meet the minimum requirements described in the IHR 2005 (Annex 1). This assessment may identify functional areas where enhancements to existing public health capacities are warranted. Where capacities require development, states are required to have a national implementation plan to fully implement these capacities throughout their territories, with a deadline of June 2012. The New Zealand Ministry of Health plans to carry out this assessment prior to the June 2009 deadline specified in the IHR 2005.
Under Article 59, states were also expected, by June 2007, to have adjusted domestic legislation and administrative arrangements to make them compatible with the IHR 2005. Many of the key elements of the Regulations are already incorporated into New Zealand legislation, in particular the quarantine provisions of the Health Act 1956. Some aspects of the new IHR regime are implemented by administrative and other means. The primary vehicle for full legislative compliance will be through the proposed Public Health Act, which will replace the Health Act 1956.
The IHR 2005 agreement includes specific obligations for states to collaborate with each other to improve the detection, assessment, and response to PHEIC, and in building the capacities to achieve this goal (Article 44). There is an expectation that developed countries such as New Zealand will support developing countries in these areas. Arguments have also been made for supporting health service development more generally, rather than a specific focus on sophisticated surveillance systems.22
Clinicians in New Zealand will notice few immediate effects of the IHR 2005. One visible change is that the “international certificate of vaccination or revaccination against yellow fever” has been replaced by the “international certificate of vaccination or prophylaxis”. In keeping with the greater flexibility of the IHR 2005, clinicians filling in this form will now need to specify, in the space provided, when the disease for which the certificate applies is “yellow fever”.23
The surveillance requirements of the IHR 2005 emphasise the importance of swift recognition and reporting of public health risks at the local level. Alert clinicians and laboratory scientists remain the cornerstone of timely and sensitive surveillance of both familiar and unfamiliar diseases of public health importance.24,25 It is important that all health workers observing an unexpected or unusual health event, particularly one which may spread or may present serious and direct danger, report this immediately to their local medical officer of health.
The IHR 2005 is an important international agreement for public health, scientific, and symbolic reasons. From a public health perspective, it specifies and mandates processes and capacities to enable public health surveillance and control measures to work. From a scientific perspective, it embodies modern risk assessment and surveillance methodologies. From a symbolic perspective, it articulates the view that the world is inter-dependent when confronting global health threats.
The IHR 2005 agreement is not a panacea for global health threats.3 It will not, for example, require states to address the many underlying factors that give rise to emerging health threats, such as global climate change. Its focus on new risks means that it provides limited direct support for efforts to reduce established threats such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Nor does it address the growing global burden of non-communicable diseases.26
There are important technical, resource, governance, legal, and political obstacles to be overcome in implementing the IHR 2005.17 But there are also effective responses to these barriers.17 With collective national and international effort to implement these new Regulations, the IHR 2005 will support greater global health security for all.
Competing interests: Both of the authors have carried out short-term consultancies for the World Health Organization, including work on the IHR 2005.
Author information: Michael Baker, Public Health Physician, University of Otago, Wellington. Andrew Forsyth, Public Health Legislation Review Team, Office of the Director of Public Health, Ministry of Health, Wellington
Correspondence: Associate Professor Michael Baker, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, PO Box 7343, Wellington South. Fax: (04) 389 5319; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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