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Global health rules aim to halt disease spread

The United Nations agreed on a new international health rules aimed at helping prevent deadly diseases such as bird flu or SARS crossing borders.
/ Source: Reuters

The United Nations agreed on Monday new international health rules aimed at helping prevent deadly diseases such as bird flu or SARS crossing borders.

The regulations, adopted by the World Health Organization's 192 member states after two years of negotiations, set out guidelines for restricting trade with, or travel to or from, an area hit by a public health emergency.

They also make it mandatory to report to WHO any outbreak of four diseases -- two emerging diseases identified in Asia, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and bird flu, and two traditional virulent viruses, smallpox and polio.

But anything else of “potential international public health concern”, including disease outbreaks from unknown causes or sources and potentially deadly sicknesses such as cholera and yellow fever, should also be reported to the WHO when they are sufficiently serious.

Diseases know no boundaries
China, which was the source of the 2003 SARS outbreak which spread to 30 countries and killed 800 people, was accused of being slow to inform the WHO and neighboring countries of what was at the time a new disease.

“This is a major step forward for international health,” said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, WHO director-general. “These new regulations recognize that diseases do not respect national boundaries. They are urgently needed to help limit the threats to public health,” he added.

The regulations greatly extend the scope of the previous guidelines, drawn up in 1969, which required countries to report three diseases -- cholera, plague and yellow fever -- to the United Nations agency, but demanded little else.

Under the new rules, member states must notify the WHO within 24 hours of anything which may constitute a public health emergency and pose a risk to the international community.

The WHO chief would be empowered to set up an emergency committee to draw up a specific response, which could include travel restrictions.

But the regulations also seek to prevent countries from taking “inappropriate restrictions,” such as unnecessarily holding up cargo or passengers without good scientific reasons.

“If you are to impose measures that go beyond what is allowed explicitly, then you can be asked to justify on a scientific basis the reason for having applied those restrictive measures,” Max Hardiman, WHO’s coordinator for the new health regulations, told journalists.

Although the regulations do not mention specifically biological or chemical agents, health officials said these were covered by the general requirement to report on any serious threat to international health.