Using the Law to Prepare for Global Health EmergenciesPosted on by
Countries need to be prepared to handle emergencies. Having the right laws in place is an important part of the preparation.
When laws are not clearly defined, responders can have a hard time figuring out what to do during a public health emergency and who has the authority to take action. When a deadly disease outbreak hits, this can have devastating consequences.
Liberia knows firsthand what can happen when laws don’t match the needs in the field. Their experience with the recent Ebola epidemic exposed gaps in legal authority during the response. This is one reason why Liberia’s government recently reached out to the GHSA Public Health Law Project. The project team is helping them document issues that could be improved by updating Liberia’s public health law, which was last fully revised in 1976.
Advancing the Global Health Security Agenda
The GHSA Public Health Law Project takes a close look at how the law can help (or hinder) countries as they prepare to handle public health emergencies through the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA). Right now, over 50 countries around the world are working through the GHSA to improve their ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats. The GHSA Public Health Law Project currently covers nearly half of the GHSA countries. The team helps analyze the laws of a country and provides training to country officials to help them understand the importance of law as a public health tool.
The team begins its work by gathering information about existing laws and talking to experts about how public health law works in their country. In Liberia, the team found that people felt unclear about their roles during the Ebola response. As one country health official told the team, “There is confusion about roles in an emergency and enforcement. What is the role of the police? The ministry of health? The military? [This] needs to be better defined.”
Public Health Law in Liberia
Before the CDC team arrived in Liberia, the Ministry of Health’s Legal Counsel were already taking the lead to help modernize the law. This is a massive undertaking that the Government of Liberia hopes to accomplish as soon as possible.
The Liberian Ministry of Health’s (MOH) Legal Counsel and CDC’s Country Office Director invited the CDC project team to help them reach this goal through research and analysis of where there may be gaps in the law. The project team worked with a team from the University of North Carolina’s School of Government, who were invited for public health law support by Liberia’s Chief Medical Officer.
Liberia will be able to use the information gathered by the team as they update their public health law. Once the laws are updated, the next step is making sure people are aware of them. A county health official laid out the problem he saw in Liberia: “Fundamentally, what is wrong is that the public health law is not widely known.” This official had been a practicing doctor for 11 years, but he had only read Liberia’s public health law for the first time two weeks prior to talking with the team.
Planning for the Future
The GHSA Public Health Law Project is being done collaboratively between CDC’s Center for Global Health and the Public Health Law Program. The project is compiling the laws from these countries into a single, searchable database to give a more complete picture of the legal landscape relating to the GHSA. The legal data obtained from this project will be a valuable resource when countries want to update their public health laws.
This initial legal mapping phase is only the beginning. What is really vital is how countries will use this information to help guide their work. The law can be an effective tool in meeting global health security goals and protecting people’s health — not only when a crisis hits, but every day.