Global Health Security Demands a Strong International Health Regulations Treaty and Leadership From a Highly Resourced World Health Organization

Disaster Med Public Health Prep. 2015 Oct;9(5):568-80. doi: 10.1017/dmp.2015.26. Epub 2015 Feb 18.


If the Ebola tragedy of West Africa has taught us anything, it should be that the 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR) Treaty, which gave unprecedented authority to the World Health Organization (WHO) to provide global public health security during public health emergencies of international concern, has fallen severely short of its original goal. After encouraging successes with the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic, the intent of the legally binding Treaty to improve the capacity of all countries to detect, assess, notify, and respond to public health threats has shamefully lapsed. Despite the granting of 2-year extensions in 2012 to countries to meet core surveillance and response requirements, less than 20% of countries have complied. Today it is not realistic to expect that these gaps will be solved or narrowed in the foreseeable future by the IHR or the WHO alone under current provisions. The unfortunate failures that culminated in an inadequate response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa are multifactorial, including funding, staffing, and poor leadership decisions, but all are reversible. A rush by the Global Health Security Agenda partners to fill critical gaps in administrative and operational areas has been crucial in the short term, but questions remain as to the real priorities of the G20 as time elapses and critical gaps in public health protections and infrastructure take precedence over the economic and security needs of the developed world. The response from the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and foreign medical teams to Ebola proved indispensable to global health security, but both deserve stronger strategic capacity support and institutional status under the WHO leadership granted by the IHR Treaty. Treaties are the most successful means the world has in preventing, preparing for, and controlling epidemics in an increasingly globalized world. Other options are not sustainable. Given the gravity of ongoing failed treaty management, the slow and incomplete process of reform, the magnitude and complexity of infectious disease outbreaks, and the rising severity of public health emergencies, a recommitment must be made to complete and restore the original mandates as a collaborative and coordinated global network responsibility, not one left to the actions of individual countries. The bottom line is that the global community can no longer tolerate an ineffectual and passive international response system. As such, this Treaty has the potential to become one of the most effective treaties for crisis response and risk reduction worldwide. Practitioners and health decision-makers worldwide must break their silence and advocate for a stronger Treaty and a return of WHO authority.

Keywords: Ebola; GOARN; International Health Regulations Treaty; World Health Association; epidemics; foreign medical teams; global health security; humanitarian assistance; pandemics.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa, Western
  • Disease Outbreaks / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Disease Outbreaks / prevention & control*
  • Ebolavirus
  • Global Health / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Leadership*
  • Population Surveillance / methods*
  • Public Health / methods*
  • World Health Organization