WHO backs early adoption of bird flu rules
Reuters Health Thursday, January 26, 2006
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - International rules obliging countries to report human cases of bird flu promptly and share data could be brought forward to come into effect this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday.
The regulations, which include powers to monitor and quarantine international passengers and cargo, were approved by the United Nations health agency last year to come into effect in mid2007.
But a number of countries, led by Canada, pressed at this week's meeting of the WHO's executive board for the date to be brought forward because of a rising threat from bird flu.
The proposal was backed by the 32-state executive on Thursday, but must still be ratified by the WHO's annual assembly of 192 member states in May. If accepted, application of the rules will be voluntary in the first year.
"This resolution, while not legally-binding, will put pressure on countries...It is a call for compliance," Max Hardiman, WHO's project leader, told Reuters in an interview.
"It gives us a very clear mandate to tell countries 'you must give us the information that you have of cases,'" he said.
Shigeru Omi, WHO's Western Pacific regional director, told the talks on Tuesday that Asian countries had lagged in reporting some human cases of bird flu and this could jeopardise the chances of swiftly containing any potential pandemic.
Bird flu has killed at least 83 people in six countries since late 2003. The H5N1 virus is not known to pass easily between humans at the moment, but experts fear it could develop that ability and set off a pandemic that might kill millions.
Japan, the United States, the European Union (EU) and Russia this week backed early adoption of the rules for bird flu.
"There is a high degree of support for voluntary compliance with the International Health Regulations. It will help countries to build capacity," Margaret Chan, the WHO's top pandemic official, told the talks.
"Whatever resources we invest now would not go to waste. This will come back to serve our long-term interests of global health security," she added.
Current international health rules, dating back to 1969, cover only three diseases - cholera, plague and yellow fever.
The new rules -- prompted by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed some 800 people in 2003 -- require reporting any event that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern.