SARS Prompts Broader Powers for WHO
New Regulations to Protect Against Infectious Disease Threats
May 28, 2003 -- Recognizing SARS (severe acute respiratory
syndrome) as "the first severe infectious disease to emerge in the
twenty-first century," the World Health Organization (WHO) today approved
sweeping new regulations to give the organization authority to track and
respond to future global health threats.
It's the first proposed major revision of the International
Health Regulations since 1969. The regulations provide the legal framework for
the global surveillance and reporting of infectious diseases, such as SARS.
The revisions, which are expected to be completed in 2005, will
also give the organization greater power to enforce measures designed to
prevent the international spread of infectious diseases and minimize
interference with world traffic.
"This is an extremely significant step for international
public health," said Gro Harlem Brundtland, MD, director-general of WHO, in
a news release. "SARS has shown us the size of the challenges we face.
These new measures will help us respond even more effectively to the next
public health threat."
Verifying Infectious Disease Quickly
The new regulations will allow the WHO to verify disease
outbreaks through official and unofficial sources, conduct on-the-spot
investigations when necessary to determine the severity of an outbreak, and
check to see if appropriate control measures are in place.
The current regulations limit mandatory reporting of just a few
diseases to the WHO, but the new rules will broaden notification requirements
to include "public health emergencies of international concern," such
In their resolution adopted today at the meeting of the WHO's
governing body in Geneva, representatives from more than 190 countries stated
that "national and international experiences with SARS contribute lessons
that can improve preparedness for responding to, and mitigating the public
health, economic, and social consequences of the next emerging infectious
disease, the next influenza pandemic, and the possible use of a biological
agent to cause harm."
The delegates also urged all member states to improve the
system to ensure rapid two-way communication between the WHO and national
public health authorities.
In a related move, a unanimous resolution on SARS that called
for all nations to "report cases promptly and transparently and provide
requested information to WHO" was also approved.
SARS Still Spreading
And as the meeting drew to a close today, word came from the
Russian news agency Interfax that Russian health officials had confirmed their
first case of SARS in the Amur region of southwest Russia, which shares a
border with China.
Over the weekend, the WHO added Toronto, Canada to the list of
areas with where SARS is currently being transmitted locally after new clusters
of SARS cases were linked to four Toronto hospitals. On May 14, Toronto was
removed from the WHO list of areas with local SARS transmission after no new
cases were reported over a 20-day period, which suggested that the chain of
transmission was under control.
Although the WHO currently does not recommend any travel
restrictions to Toronto, persons leaving the area are alerted to watch for
possible symptoms of SARS.