World Health Officials Agree to Report All Major Disease Outbreaks

GENEVA, Switzerland, May 20, 2005 (ENS) - Health ministers and senior officials from 192 countries today agreed to new rules requiring all major public health events of international concern to be reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). Up until now, outbreaks of only three diseases – cholera, plague and yellow fever – had to be notified to the WHO but not world's biggest fear - the start of a global flu pandemic.

The revised International Health Regulations adopted today at the World Health Assembly mean that the WHO will be notified of all major disease outbreaks, and also notified of suspected bio-terrorism events such as the deliberate release of biological pathogens.

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A partial view of the plenary hall in Geneva where health officials from 192 countries are meeting through May 25. (Photo © WHO/P. Virot)
They revised regulations require the WHO to assist its members in responding to such threats and provide a basis for greater international cooperation in this field. The new rules should come into force in 2007.

International cooperation against infectious disease outbreaks will be strengthened by the new notification rules, said Markos Kyprianou, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 has shown how quickly infectious diseases can spread around the globe he said.

Kyprianou said, "The drive to strengthen international cooperation against future epidemics complements our efforts to reinforce Europe’s defenses against disease. The quicker we are alerted to a disease outbreak the greater the chances we can successfully contain it."

"If international cooperation can help stop an epidemic before it really gets started the whole world will be better off as a result," he said.

The International Health Regulations were adopted in 1969, and have been updated twice since then - in 1973 and 1981.

In May 2003, the World Health Assembly agreed to launch a review of the regulations. The European Commission and the 25 EU member states have played a central role in negotiating the revision to the regulations agreed by the World Health Assembly today Kyprianou said.

A system of Europe-wide surveillance and an early warning and response system against infectious disease has been operational in the European Union since 1998, but now the EU is acting to reinforce its own defenses against infectious diseases. Later this month in Stockholm a new EU agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), will be officially launched.

On May 27, Commissioner Kyprianou, the Swedish Minister for Public Health and Social Services, Morgan Johansson, and Minister Mars Di Bartolomeo on behalf of the Luxembourg Presidency will inaugurate the ECDC. The inauguration ceremony will be held at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

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Elena Salgado, the Minister of Health of Spain and the President of the 58th World Health Assembly (Photo © WHO/P. Virot)
This new EU agency will reinforce and develop Europe’s disease surveillance system and will also provide EU policy makers with authoritative scientific advice on new and emerging health threats.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt put the prevention of a global flu pandemic at the top of his priority list and told reporters at a briefing in Geneva that implementing the U.S. plan for HIV/AIDS relief in 15 focus nations is another important U.S. concern.

Completing the eradication of polio worldwide, improving the response to bioterrorism and developing a better global system for communicating health information were also cited as priorities.

Leavitt’s concerns about a global flu pandemic arise from the widespread outbreak of bird flu now plaguing 11 Asian nations. Hundreds of millions of birds have been destroyed to prevent further spread of the H5N1 flu virus. This strain has also caused illness among about 90 people.

“What concerns us greatly is the fact that there is virtually no human immunity to this particular strain,” Leavitt said. “We’re working feverishly to develop a vaccine. The vaccine is now in clinical trials.”

U.S. health officials acknowledged that the vaccine in development might not provide complete protection from a still-unknown mutation of the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus that could spread among humans and set a pandemic in motion.

Still, they said, the vaccine now being manufactured provides a head start should the need arise to develop massive numbers of doses for use in response to a global pandemic.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, who heads the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters, "We agree that the question is not if a pandemic will occur, it is when will the pandemic will occur."

"We don’t know when, but right now the situation that we see in South East Asia, is one that is characterized by a very large amount of virus circulating widely among poultry and waterfowl, and evidence of transmission to people with a very bad outcome," Gerberding said. "So it is a very virulent, deadly form of the virus, and we can’t afford to take the chance that this is the one that will become more transmissible to people, so we’re taking all the steps now that we can to try to prevent it from evolving, but also to be prepared to contain it if it should emerge and protect people more broadly if that becomes necessary."

The World Health Assembly continues through May 25.