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Using the Law to Prepare for Global Health Emergencies

Posted on by Blog Administrator

CDC country office sign in Liberia

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

Bucket of bleach for washing of hands before entering public buildings and entering counties
Ebola preventive measures in Liberia: Buckets of chlorine solution to wash hands before entering public buildings and entering counties.

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.

CDC Public Health Law team
From Left to Right: Jeff Austin (University of North Carolina), Emily Rosenfeld (CDC), Akshara Menon (CDC), Tomik Vobah and Aimee Wall (University of North Carolina)

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.

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3 comments on “Using the Law to Prepare for Global Health Emergencies”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    I work Executive Director for http://www.facebook.com/chesslib04 (Community Health Education and Social Services-CHESS) a Liberian national NGO specialized in preventive health services and sustainable development. In northern Liberia, CHESS was at the hub of the Ebola Response especially along the Liberians-Guineans borders where the Ebola prevalence was high due to denial, porous borders but most importantly long standing cultural practices including respect for the dead. One thing the impeded the Liberian (may include Guinea and Sierra Leone) Ebola response/s and partly explains the VIRUS RAPID SPREAD was the confusion in who leads the Ebola response? Liberia MOH in my view should be but surprisingly the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Defense (MIA& MOD) were in the midway mediated to lead even-though they lacked the technical know hows. I believe this was a political decision but innocent women and children paid the prices, for example the most publicized WEST POINT CASE.. All happened because the Liberian Law on Public Health Emergency response is not clear and known to actors including government officials. I personally trust that Liberia Public Health Law amendment is a great step forward for Liberia’s emergency readiness and preparedness.

    I echo that what is really vital is that countries use this information. This means that MOH staff understand what is in the law, they operationalize it and that only when necessary laws are revised or supplemented and that ministerial regulations are used to their fullest extent.
    The information collection process is sorely needed and it is unfortunate that development donors have overlooked this step which is essential to any health development activity – whether emergency preparedness, health system strengthening or otherwise. This step can be undertaken even by law students or legal interns, such as LexLead interns I have used and guided by a senior lawyer. Once collected this information needs to be made digital and available to all. In my experience this step takes a few weeks but once it is done it is done and has broad applicability.
    Law is eye opening to many and once transparent, it is a game changer like few other interventions.

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