As the world continues to be threatened with headline-grabbing, cross-border public health risks of the likes of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu and the more recent swine flu outbreak, it is becoming increasingly clear that law can and should play an important role in curbing the spread of these infectious disease outbreaks both within national borders and globally.
Although an international legal framework like the International Health Regulations (which were revised in 2005 largely because of the 2003 SARS epidemic) is available to governments to prevent and control the international spread of disease, there is need to generate regional and international institutional networks and partnerships, particularly to build capacity in the area of national public health law, especially in low and middle-income countries.
It was therefore timely that an expert consultation meeting on public health law, held in Rome, Italy on 26 – 28, was co-convened by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law (Georgetown University), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Development Law Organisation (IDLO). The consultation meeting which drew 22 health law experts from around the world, aimed to identify gaps and opportunities for health within the broader international legal arena and within national legal frameworks, consider the roles and activities of respective institutions and develop future approaches for networking and capacity building.
One key result of the consultation meeting was a decision to begin the process of drafting guidelines for national public health laws, led by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, with the support of IDLO and WHO.
“The world faces enormous problems with public health, especially in the developing world, and the majority of legal systems simply do not protect and promote health adequately,” said Georgetown Law Professor Lawrence Gostin, who directs the O’Neill Institute. “Many governments have not addressed the issues surrounding air and water pollution, sanitation, sewage, child and maternal health, obesity and outbreaks of infectious diseases, and we must give them both the powers and duty to do so if we expect them to ensure the well-being of society.”
“Many of these problems require regional and international approaches,” said David Patterson, manager of IDLO’s HIV and Health Law Program. “To do this, we need to engage groups at all levels of society to join us in this effort. Only in this way can we be certain that the poor and disadvantaged will gain the health and security they need to advance their social and economic prospects.”
“Without functioning health systems underpinned by legislation, it is difficult to respond effectively to outbreaks of infectious diseases, as well as longer term chronic diseases,” said Helena Nygren-Krug, health and human rights adviser at WHO in Geneva. “Countries need modern tools and resources, and we intend to provide governments with the assistance and training that will enable them to deliver services that produce sustainable results.”
“While law cannot, by itself, summon up the resources for an effective public health infrastructure, the existence of a coherent legal infrastructure for the performance of core public health functions plays an important part in addressing the material and environmental conditions that create the conditions for a healthy population” said Professor Roger Magnusson of University of Sydney, a participant and rapporteur of the consultation meeting.
For further information read the following related sources:
“International Consultation Confirms National Public Health Law Infrastructure as a Priority”. By Professor Roger Magnusson (University of Sidney Law School)
“O’Neill Institute, WHO and IDLO Call on Governments to Strengthen Public Health Laws”. Press release by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University.