A World Health Organization (WHO) committee tasked with reviewing how well the International Health Regulations (IHRs) worked during the Ebola outbreak wrapped up their first meeting today, with plans to dig into three main topics in the months ahead.
The group's newly elected chairman, Didier Houssin, MD, addressed reporters today during a telebriefing at the end of the 2-day meeting in Geneva. He is a surgeon who now heads the Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education in Paris. Houssin has served on WHO advisory groups before and has led some of its pandemic preparedness and IHR review groups in recent years.
The rules are considered an important legal tool for improving the world's preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies, but they have come under fire in recent years as not being strong enough, specific enough, or enforceable. The IHR issue became a flashpoint during the Ebola outbreak when some countries flouted them by imposing travel bans and border closures, which are thought to have impeded response steps.
In May, the World Health Assembly asked for a committee to assess the IHRs' performance during the epidemic. In 2010 a similar group reviewed IHR performance during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
Houssin said recommendations from the panel that reviewed IHR performance during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic weren't implemented, but he added that the changes aren't easy to make and at the time, global health officials and health ministries faced public pressure for doing too much during the flu pandemic. The new review of the IHR, however, is taking place against the backdrop of criticism for not doing enough during the Ebola outbreak, he said. "It's a crisis, but an opportunity."
Over the course of the meeting the group divided the review among three working groups that will address three main issues: defining IHR principles and the flow of information between the WHO and individual countries, assessing IHR core capacities for countries (ie, epidemiology, surveillance, and lab capabilities), and IHR compliance and governance.
The group also set up a tentative schedule for their next meetings, with the next slated for early October, Houssin said. The review committee will produce an outline for the WHO executive board's January meeting, and it will present a final report to the World Health Assembly in May.
WHO Ebola IHR review committee background