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Last Updated

28 May 2003

Source: Newsday, May 28, 2003

WHO Vows to Overhaul Health Regulations

By CLARE NULLIS, Associated Press Writer

GENEVA -- Voicing its alarm at the spread of the SARS virus, the World Health Organization vowed to overhaul outdated international health regulations to deal more effectively with epidemics and the threat of bioterrorism.

The U.N. health agency's annual assembly said it was "deeply concerned that SARS, as the first severe infectious disease to emerge in the century, poses a serious threat to global health security, the livelihood of populations, the functioning of health systems, and the stability and growth of economies."

After bitter arguments between the United States and developing countries, WHO also agreed to take a higher profile on the politically charged issue of patents on medicines and to gather data on whether medicines being developed by the pharmaceutical industry truly addressed global health needs.

The decisions on SARS and intellectual property were passed by a key policy-making committee at the WHO assembly. They will now be approved by the full conference on Wednesday, but this is a mere formality.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland stressed the importance of the revision of the international health regulations, which were last updated in 1981. They are designed to monitor and control the most dangerous infectious diseases by obliging governments to notify all outbreaks to WHO, which can then give guidance on international trade and travel. However, only cholera, plague and yellow fever are currently classed as notifiable diseases even though new and highly contagious threats -- like Ebola and SARS -- have emerged in recent years.

"The international health regulations are outdated and belong to another time and age where infectious diseases which were dangerous to international health were a limited few," said Brundtland. "Here we have SARS illustrating that a public health threat can come out of nowhere."

The resolution approved by the assembly committee urged governments to step up efforts tocomplete the revised health regulations by 2005. WHO has been working on the overhaul of the regulations for years, but it is a complicated process that risks ruffling feathers about national sovereignty.

Pending the completion of the new rules, the resolution said that WHO should be given more authority. Most significantly, it empowered WHO to take action on the basis of "reports from sources other than official notifications." This should help the U.N. health agency skirt governments reluctant to publicize that they have a serious health problem -- as was the case with Chinese authorities and SARS.

An accompanying resolution on SARS urged countries to "report cases promptly and transparently" and to give all requested information to WHO. Brundtland said the two resolutions would now give her agency a stronger platform for action.

During the debate countries such as China, Canada, Vietnam and Malaysia -- all of whom have been affected by SARS -- took the floor to voice the need for more effective international rules.

"The current regulations are obviously insufficient in view of today's rapid, high-volume migration, emerging infections and the threats of bio-terrorism," said U.S. delegate David Hohman. But he stressed that the new rules should represent a "careful balance among disease containment efforts, respect for individual liberties, and a nation's right to engage in international commerce."

The debate on intellectual property was the most divisive of WHO's 10-day assembly, which ends Wednesday. It pitted the United States, which insists that patent protection is paramount in encouraging innovation and new drugs, against developing countries led by Brazil, which argued that health should be given priority over trade.