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SARS Prompts Broader Powers for WHO

New Regulations to Protect Against Infectious Disease Threats
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WebMD Health News

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 as bioterrorism.

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.

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