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Brussels, 28 September 2006

International Health Regulations – Commission calls for proactive implementation, particularly on flu aspects

The European Commission has adopted a Communication on the revised International Health Regulations 2005 (the IHR). Due to enter into force in June 2007, the IHR is an important legal instrument which aims to prevent and control the international spread of disease, while avoiding unnecessary interference with traffic and trade. Today’s Communication discusses early application of flu-related aspects, as proposed by the World Health Assembly; clarifies the EU role in IHR implementation and recalls the limits the IHR places on national policy responses. The Communication is intended to stimulate Member States to develop and share their own plans for implementing these important regulations.

Markos Kyprianou, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said “The Commission has always been a strong proponent of the International Health Regulations. We now want the EU to take a proactive approach to implementation, particularly in light of the pandemic flu threat. By working together with Member States to implement the IHR, we can better protect our citizens from international public health emergencies. We can also help ensure policy responses around the world are proportionate to public health risks“.

EU role in IHR implementation

The EU itself is not a party to the IHR, but the Commission believes the EU and its Member States can and should work together to optimise IHR implementation in the context of the EU policies and health related actions and initiatives. In particular, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and the EU Early Warning and Response System for public health threats (EWRS), can help us to implement the IHR in a stronger, more coherent way. Today’s Communication proposes a number of working practices in this respect, and a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Health Organization to ensure these arrangements are properly defined. It also calls for a common EU approach to IHR reservations.

Early application of flu-related aspects

In May this year, the World Health Assembly called for countries to comply as soon as possible with the IHR provisions considered relevant to the risk posed by avian and potential human pandemic influenza. Today’s Communication identifies the specific aspects identified for early application and describes the EU context, in order to promote a common approach.

Background on the revised International Health Regulations (2005)

In 1951 the member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted the first International Sanitary Regulations. These were renamed the International Health Regulations in 1969; since then they have been amended and modified four times, most recently in 2005.

The EU Member States and the Commission played an active part in negotiations on the 2005 revision, and the new IHR is the most comprehensive yet. Instead of limiting itself to a list of diseases (only cholera, plague and yellow fever were covered in the past) the new IHR introduces the broader concept of public health emergencies of international concern, to cover existing, new and re-emerging diseases, including emergencies caused by non-infectious disease agents. Important changes were also made on arrangements for notifying and verifying emergencies, national focal points, definition of core capacities, and WHO recommended measures in response to public health emergencies.

The revised IHR (2005) is due to enter into force on 15 June 2007, with gradual implementation until 2016 at the latest. However in May 2006 the World Health Assembly called upon States Parties to comply immediately, on a voluntary basis, with the IHR provisions considered relevant to the risk posed by avian and potential human pandemic influenza.

The IHR is automatically binding on all WHO members unless they reject it or submit a reservation to WHO by 15 December 2006. 192 states are currently WHO members, including the 25 EU Member States, Bulgaria and Romania. The EU itself is not a WHO member, so cannot be a party to the IHR, but its role as a regional economic integration organization is recognized in IHR Article 57. This article also states that members of such regional economic integration organizations shall apply in their mutual relations the common rules in force in that organization.
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