International context – the International Health Regulations

The International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR) were developed by member states of the World Health Organization and came into force in June 2007. Under the IHR, New Zealand has joined the global commitment to plan and prepare for a prompt response to public health threats to both New Zealand and the wider international community.

The purpose of the IHR is to protect against the international spread of disease, by providing measures to prevent and control such events. Any public health response must be appropriate to the public health risk and avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

The IHR has a wide scope to cover existing and new diseases, as well as emergencies caused by non-infectious disease agents (eg, radiation or chemical spills). The IHR requires countries to have certain core capacities in place in order to detect, notify, and communicate information about public health emergencies. It provides for an adapted response focus, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach – the right response will depend on the nature and seriousness of the threat.

IHR requirements

The IHR takes a pro-active approach, with defined procedures and responsibilities between WHO (World Health Organization) and member states. Countries are required to notify WHO of all events that could be a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. This is a much wider focus than former IHR, which focused on a handful of diseases only (yellow fever, cholera, and the plague).

The IHR provides a global reporting and notification framework for this purpose, described in Articles 5–18 and Annex 2. There are administrative and coordination requirements such as countries nominating National IHR Focal Points and WHO nominating IHR Contact Points (see Articles 4 and 47–66).

A key focus of the IHR is on capacity building. Each country needs to work to ensure it has certain core surveillance and response capacities for public health threats (see Articles 5 and 13, and Part A of Annex 1).

Countries also need to have certain core capacities at their international points of entry (airports, seaports, and land border crossings). These core capacities are regarded as critical for preventing the international spread of disease and other public health risks. They cover things like having access to appropriate medical facilities, trained staff and the right equipment, and providing a safe environment for travellers. Countries also need capacities to be able to respond to a potential public health emergency of international concern (such as a pandemic).   

For more information about the core capacities required at New Zealand international airports and sea ports, go to Meeting core capacity requirements for international points of entry.

The IHR also includes a range of public health actions, measures and documentation requirements for international travellers, goods, cargo and conveyances and the ports and airports that they use. This covers the provision of facilities, services, inspections, quarantine, treatment and a range of control activities which enable health authorities to protect against public health threats (see Articles 23–41).

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