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How do Different Countries Deal with Major Public Health Emergencies?

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Following the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there has been a great deal of debate both in the United States and abroad about how countries deal with major public health crises.  This included discussions about the difficulty of containing the virus in the countries hardest-hit by the epidemic and what preventative measures other countries could take.  Here at the Law Library of Congress, we recently published a report, Legal Responses to Health Emergencies, that analyzes the regulatory frameworks for dealing with public health crises in 24 countries and at the international level.  It also provides bibliographic information of recently published scholarly works on the subject.

Created by CDC microbiologist Frederick A. Murphy, this colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural morphology displayed by an Ebola virus virion. Photo by Flickr user CDC Global, Aug. 13, 2014. Used under Creative Commons License,

The report analyzes certain key issues regarding the management of public health crises in different countries.  It includes descriptions of relevant government structures in the surveyed jurisdictions, which are important in understanding how the authority to manage public health crises is distributed across different tiers and branches of government and the specific powers accorded to various entities.  The exercise of these powers may result in the restriction of certain rights, including the right to movement and privacy, which makes issues of clarity and transparency important.  The report includes sections that discuss approaches to transparency with regard to both preventative measures and the management of ongoing crises in different jurisdictions.

As seen with the recent Ebola outbreak, the nature of public health emergencies is that they often cross national boundaries.  This is particularly the case given the volume of travel around the world today.  For instance, in 2014 nearly 75 million people visited the United States, and over 68 million Americans traveled abroad.  Therefore, it is clear that national programs for detecting and containing public health crises are not sufficient to effectively manage such emergencies.  The report describes extra-national mechanisms, specifically obligations and cooperation that stem from membership in the World Health Organization (WHO).  A key mechanism at the international level is the International Health Regulations (IHR), which are binding on 196 countries.  The European Union and WHO sections of the report also include discussion of other regional and global approaches to managing public health emergencies.

Finally, the report provides information on how regulatory frameworks for dealing with public health crises work in practice.  It describes a number of measures taken in response to the recent Ebola outbreak, including in those countries where there was an outbreak of the virus.  These include containment measures (such as contact tracing and isolation of infected and suspected individuals), enhanced passenger screenings at entry points, borders closings, and temporary travel bans to and from Ebola-stricken countries.

We often publish foreign, comparative, and international law reports on topical issues on the the Legal Topics page of our website.  Some of our recently-published reports discussed police weapons, regulation of bitcoin, laws criminalizing apostasy, and laws criminalizing homosexuality in African jurisdictions.  You can learn about new reports by subscribing to email alerts or by keeping an eye on this blog, particularly the Global Law category.

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