U.S. Promotes International Collaborations at Health Conference

By Cheryl Pellerin
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – U.S. officials are joining delegations from 192 other nations in Geneva for the 60th World Health Assembly (WHA), being held May 14-23, to discuss and act on policies addressing key issues, including avian and pandemic influenza and the revised International Health Regulations.

The assembly is a forum of international health ministers that determines major World Health Organization (WHO) policy questions. During these meetings, its members also approve the WHO program and budget for the next two-year period.

In 2007, the assembly will consider resolutions on issues agreed upon by the WHO Executive Board in its January session. In addition to avian flu and International Health Regulations, members will discuss smallpox eradication, malaria, tuberculosis control, chronic diseases, better children’s medicines and other topics.

“In the past few years, the assembly’s leading issue has been the threat of avian influenza and pandemic influenza,” said U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Michael Leavitt at a May 14 press conference in Geneva.

“The United States strongly supports [WHO’s] effort to meet the global need for an influenza vaccine,” Leavitt added. “The United States also works with partners throughout the world to monitor the spread of disease and prepare for possible pandemics.”

The four principles of U.S. international collaboration, he said, are transparency, rapid reporting, data sharing and scientific cooperation.

“We continue to call on countries everywhere to share influenza samples openly and rapidly and without preconditions,” Leavitt said. “No nation can go it alone.”

The United States contributed $10 million in 2007 to WHO to help other countries produce more vaccines, and has invested heavily in vaccine research and expanding U.S. production capability.

Also attending the press conference were Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); Admiral (Dr.) John Agwunobi of the U.S. Public Health Service and HHS assistant secretary for health; and Ambassador John Lange, the State Department special representative for avian and pandemic influenza.


The International Health Regulation (IHR) are legally binding rules adopted by most countries to contain the disease threats that could spread rapidly from country to country. Such diseases include emerging infections like a new human flu virus or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which caused a major epidemic between November 2002 and July 2003 with more than 8,000 known cases and 774 deaths. Threats also could come from chemical spills, leaks and dumping or nuclear accidents.

The newest IHR, completed in 2005, updated the 1969 IHR, which addressed only four diseases – cholera, plague, yellow fever and smallpox, a disease that has been eradicated.

“In a globalized world,” said Dr. Paulo Ivo Garrido, minister of health of Mozambique and president of the 59th WHA, in a May 14 address to the assembly, “health issues present new challenges that go far beyond national borders and have an impact on the collective security of people around the world.”

According to WHO, the 2005 revision has led to an unprecedented international public health agreement to contain health emergencies at the source. The assembly adopted the revision in May 2005; the new regulations come into force June 15. (See related article.)

“All nations have a responsibility,” Leavitt said, “to work together toward universal implementation of the International Health Regulations.”

The IHR offers a legal framework that defines rights, obligations and procedures to ensure international health security without unnecessary interference in international traffic and trade. The revised regulations require all member states to strengthen their capacity for disease surveillance and response.


The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was reported in 1977; in 1980, the WHO declared the highly infectious disease eradicated.

Today, although there is no evidence of naturally occurring smallpox transmission anywhere on Earth, small quantities of smallpox variola virus are held in two research laboratories – one in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one in Russia.

Some experts think both samples of the virus should be destroyed; others – who think the virus still might exist somewhere in the world, or that terrorists could use it as a biological weapon – want to retain copies of the virus.

There is consensus across science, Agwunobi said, that the smallpox virus is still useful for creating improved diagnostics for smallpox and better treatments and vaccines.

At the 120th meeting of the WHO Executive Board in January, discussion continued about a draft resolution to destroy smallpox virus stocks. The results of those discussions were sent to the 60th WHA fro further discussion.

“The United States and the CDC take very seriously the trust that we hold in being the custodians of the smallpox virus,” said Gerberding. “We also take very seriously our responsibility to conduct the research that the global community has deemed necessary to be sure that we have the best possible means of protecting people should that virus ever be re-released into our society.”

More information about the 60th World Health Assembly and the International Health Regulations is available at the WHO Web site.