Global collaboration to meet threats to public health security
These threats require urgent action, and WHO and its partners have much to offer immediately as well as in the longer term. This is an area where real progress to protect whole populations can be made, starting now. It is also where recent history shows that some of the most serious threats to human existence are likely to emerge without warning. It would be extremely naïve and complacent to assume that there will not be another disease like AIDS, another Ebola, or another SARS, sooner or later.
A more secure world that is ready and prepared to respond collectively in the face of threats to global health security requires global partnerships that bring together all countries and stakeholders in all relevant sectors, gather the best technical support and mobilize the necessary resources for effective and timely implementation of IHR (2005). This calls for national core capacity in disease detection and international collaboration for public health emergencies of international concern.
While many of these partnerships are already in place, there are serious gaps, particularly in the health systems of many countries, which weaken the consistency of global health collaboration. In order to compensate for these gaps, an effective global system of epidemic alert and response was initiated by WHO in 1996. It was built essentially on a concept of international partnership with many other agencies and technical institutions. Systematic mechanisms for gathering epidemic intelligence and verifying the existence of outbreaks were established and prompted risk assessments, information dissemination and rapid field response. Regional and global mechanisms for stockpiling and rapid distribution of vaccines, drugs and specialized investigation and protection equipment were also established for public health events caused by haemorrhagic fevers, influenza, meningitis, smallpox and yellow fever.
Today, the public health security of all countries depends on the capacity of each to act effectively and contribute to the security of all. The world is rapidly changing and nothing today moves faster than information. This makes the sharing of essential health information one of the most feasible routes to global public health security.
Instant electronic communication means that disease outbreaks can no longer be kept secret, as was often the case during the implementation of the previous International Health Regulations (1969), known as IHR (1969). Governments were unwilling to report outbreaks because of the potential damage to their economies through disruptions in trade, travel and tourism. In reality, rumours are more damaging than facts. Trust is built through transparency, and trust is necessary for international cooperation in health and development (see Figure 2).
The first steps that must be taken towards global public health security, therefore, are to develop core detection and response capacities in all countries, and to maintain new levels of cooperation between countries to reduce the risks to public health security outlined above. This entails countries strengthening their health systems and ensuring they have the capacity to prevent and control epidemics that can quickly spread across borders and even across continents. Where countries are unable to achieve prevention and control by themselves, it means providing rapid, expert international disease surveillance and response networks to assist them – and making sure these mesh together into an efficient safety net. Above all, it means all countries conforming to and benefiting from IHR (2005).