Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century

Article excerpt


At a time when the world faces many new and recurring threats, the ambitious aim of this year's world health report is to show how collective international public health action can build a safer future for humanity.

This is the overall goal of global public health security. For the purposes of this report, global public health security is defined as the activities required, both proactive and reactive, to minimize vulnerability to acute public health events that endanger the collective health of populations living across geographical regions and international boundaries.

As the events illustrated in this report show, global health security, or the lack of it, may also have an impact on economic or political stability, trade, tourism, access to goods and services and, if they occur repeatedly, on demographic stability. It embraces a wide range of complex and daunting issues, from the international stage to the individual household, including the health consequences of poverty, wars and conflicts, climate change, natural catastrophes and man-made disasters.


All of these are areas of continuing WHO work and will be the topics of forthcoming publications. The 2008 World Health Report, for example, will be concerned with individual health security, concentrating on the role of primary health care and humanitarian action in providing access to the essential prerequisites for health.

This report, however, focuses on specific issues that threaten the collective health of people internationally: infectious disease epidemics, pandemics and other acute health events as defined by the revised International Health Regulations, known as IHR (2005), which came into force in June of this year.

The purpose of these Regulations is to prevent the spread of disease across international borders. They are a vital legislative instrument of global public health security, providing the necessary global framework to prevent, detect, assess and, if necessary, provide a coordinated response to events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern.

Meeting the requirements in the revised IHR (2005) is a challenge that requires time, commitment and the willingness to change. The Regulations are broader and more demanding than those they replace, with a much greater emphasis on the responsibility of all countries to have in place effective systems for detection and control of public health risks--and to accomplish this by 2012.

A strategic plan has been developed by WHO to guide countries in the implementation of the obligations in the Regulations and to help them overcome the inherent challenges.


Today's highly mobile, interdependent and interconnected world provides myriad opportunities for the rapid spread of infectious diseases, and radionuclear and toxic threats, which is why updated and expanded Regulations are necessary. Infectious diseases are now spreading geographically much faster than at any time in history. It is estimated that 2.1 billion airline passengers travelled in 2006; an outbreak or epidemic in any one part of the world is only a few hours away from becoming an imminent threat somewhere else (see Figure 1).

Infectious diseases are not only spreading faster, they appear to be emerging more quickly than ever before. Since the 1970s, newly emerging diseases have been identified at the unprecedented rate of one or more per year. There are now nearly 40 diseases that were unknown a generation ago. In addition, during the last five years, WHO has verified more than 1100 epidemic events worldwide.

The categories and examples given below illustrate the variety and breadth of public health threats confronting people today.

Epidemic-prone diseases

Cholera, yellow fever and epidemic meningococcal diseases made a comeback in the last quarter of the 20th century and call for renewed efforts in surveillance, prevention and control. …


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