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Public Health Issues: The Role of International Health Regulations

Everyone with a public health career should know what to do during a public health event that threatens to cross international borders.

The world’s international borders do little to stop the spread of disease, pollutants, and other health hazards. That’s why the World Health Organization (WHO) once again expanded the scope of its International Health Regulations (IHR) in 2005,* providing additional guidance for its more than 190 member nations.

If we’re going to protect ourselves from public health crises, we have to work together. And if you’re currently in or thinking about starting a public health career, you will want to know what your nation’s responsibilities are in preventing and responding to public health events that could spread. Here’s what you need to know about IHR.

Public Health Issues: The Role of International Health Regulations

The Goal of IHR

The primary goal of IHR is for nations to expand or create systems for detecting, assessing, and reporting public health events. By recognizing potential public health problems quickly and sharing information with WHO readily, nations have a much better chance of preventing international health crises.

What IHR Guards Against

IHR covers any public health event that can cross international borders. However, WHO identifies eight specific types of public health threats that IHR nations should be particularly focused on. They are:

Chemicals: Nations are expected to monitor safety in chemical production and transportation and report incidents of spills and other problems.

Emergencies: Everything from natural disaster to war can prompt a public health emergency that overflows a nation’s borders. When faced with an emergency, nations are expected to detect and report resulting health problems so the global community can respond as needed.

Diseases: Infectious disease can quickly cross borders, as seen in the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Nations are expected to remain vigilant for disease and promptly report outbreaks.

Food: The international food trade is massive, and a problem with the safety of the food supply in one region can quickly become a public health crisis in another. Nations are expected to detect and report all problems with their food supply.

Environment: Pollutants can impact the environmental and public health of entire regions, while the impacts of climate change can affect the entire world. Nations are expected to monitor the release of pollutants and report high levels of pollution that could lead to an international or global health problem.

Radiation: Radiation poisoning can quickly sicken and kill people and damage a region’s entire ecosystem. Nations are expected to keep a close eye on public and private use of radioactive materials and report any incident involving those materials.

Water and Sanitation: Rivers, seas, lakes, and oceans often touch the borders of multiple nations. To prevent widespread problems with drinking water and/or fishing, nations need to monitor pollutants being released into water and report spills and other issues that might threaten water safety.

Animals: Zoonotic events such as animal disease can lead to human health problems. To fight events like avian or swine flu jumping to human populations, nations need to keep watch over the health of livestock and wild animals and report outbreaks of disease.

WHO’s Role in IHR

WHO serves as the coordinator of IHR and provides the international community with assistance in both public health event preparation and response. Every year, nations are expected to provide WHO with a report on their public health system capacities. WHO can help nations conduct the reviews and assessments needed for the report and then help develop an IHR action plan to improve capacities where needed. In the event of a serious public health event, WHO’s alert and response system provides event-based surveillance, rapid risk assessment, communication of critical information between nations, and operations and logistics platforms that help ensure a coordinated and effective response.

How You Can Start a Career in Public Health

One of the best ways to position yourself for a public health career is to earn a public health degree. Specifically, a BS in Public Health or a Master of Public Health can help you gain the knowledge you need to develop, coordinate, and/or manage public health programs for city, state, or federal agencies.

If you’re working full time or taking care of other responsibilities, you may think being a public health major would be too burdensome. But online education is making it more convenient than ever to complete a degree. When you enroll in a public health degree program online, you can complete your coursework right from home. Plus, online learning allows you to attend your bachelor’s or master’s in public health classes at whatever time of day works best for you.

The international community needs people who can help prevent and respond to public health events. When you earn a Bachelor of Science in Public Health or a Master of Public Health from an online university, you can help fill this vital role.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering both a BS in Public Health and a Master of Public Health degree program online. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.

*World Health Organization, International Health Regulations (2005) Third Edition, on the internet as a PDF at

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,