The purpose of the International Health Regulations is to ensure the maximum security against the international spread of diseases with minimum interference with world traffic and trade. They are an international legal instrument that is binding on 194 countries across the globe, including all the Member States of WHO.
Under Articles 21(a) and 22, the Constitution of WHO confers upon the World Health Assembly the authority to adopt regulations “designed to prevent the international spread of disease” which, after adoption by the World Health Assembly, enter into force for all WHO Member States that do not affirmatively opt out of them within a specified time period.
The International Health Regulations were adopted by the Health Assembly in 19691, having been preceded by the International Sanitary Regulations adopted by the Fourth World Health Assembly in 1951. The 1969 Regulations, which initially covered six “quarantinable diseases” were amended in 19732 and 19813, primarily to reduce the number of covered diseases from six to three (yellow fever, plague and cholera) and to mark the global eradication of smallpox.
The purpose and scope of the IHR (2005), which came into effect in 2007, are “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.” The IHR (2005) contain a range of innovations, including: (a) a scope not limited to any specific disease or manner of transmission, but covering “illness or medical condition, irrespective of origin or source, that presents or could present significant harm to humans”; (b) State Party obligations to develop certain minimum core public health capacities; (c) obligations on States Parties to notify WHO of events that may constitute a public health emergency of international concern according to defined criteria; (d) provisions authorizing WHO to take into consideration unofficial reports of public health events and to obtain verification from States Parties concerning such events; (e) procedures for the determination by the Director-General of a “public health emergency of international concern” and issuance of corresponding temporary recommendations, after taking into account the views of an Emergency Committee; (f) protection of the human rights of persons and travellers; and (g) the establishment of National IHR Focal Points and WHO IHR Contact Points for urgent communications between States Parties and WHO.
By not limiting the application of the IHR (2005) to specific diseases, it is intended that the Regulations will maintain their relevance and applicability for many years to come even in the face of the continued evolution of diseases and of the factors determining their emergence and transmission. The provisions in the IHR (2005) also update and revise many of the technical and other regulatory functions, including certificates applicable to international travel and transport, and requirements for international ports, airports and ground crossings.