Image from a global conference

A global watch

Pandemic control calls for international cooperation

Since no one knows where the next major infectious disease will come from – or when it will emerge – surveillance efforts must be well coordinated and span the globe.

Leading this effort is the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which was set up by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2000. GOARN coordinates a network of over 150 institutions and partner agencies. It taps into other disease surveillance networks, such as those overseen by Public Health England and the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Part of the work of these groups and others is to help developing countries strengthen their disease surveillance systems. For example, the International Severe Acute Respiratory and Emerging Infection Consortium (ISARIC) is now a GOARN partner and involved in outbreak responses. In 2014 GOARN members combined their efforts to stem the Ebola outbreak in Guinea.

These systems will work only if countries are willing to share timely and accurate information. Since the presence of disease might have economic consequences – interrupting trade or tourism, for example – or be seen as damaging to a country’s reputation, some countries may be reluctant to be open about potential outbreaks. Research findings and treatments developed by richer countries must also be shared with poorer countries. This is not just for ethical reasons, but also because halting the spread of disease requires coordinated global efforts that make use of the best information and resources available.

International Health Regulations, a set of international laws governing how we respond to diseases and health risks, have been revised to reflect the global nature of disease. For example, until recently there were only three diseases that countries were legally obliged to report to WHO: cholera, plague and yellow fever.

However, as of June 2007 countries have 48 hours to notify WHO of “all events that may constitute public health emergencies of international concern” – which means all outbreaks of life-threatening infections, whatever their causes. Stemming from this, the first Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – a formal declaration designed to help combat the spread of disease – was declared by WHO in 2009 during the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic.

Lead image:

IAEA Imagebank/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in September 2007 and reviewed and updated in January 2015.

Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease, Immunology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development