Groningen Journal of International Law

International Law Under Construction

Grand Challenges for Global Health Law: from Ebola, to Cancer and Diabetes

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By Brigit Toebes, University of

In 2014, the largest and by far most serious outbreak of Ebola since the virus was first detected in 1976 occurred. With an overall death toll of 11.300, there were more cases and deaths in this outbreak than in all others combined. The disease quickly spread between countries, starting in Guinea and then spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The International Health Regulations, adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2005 to monitor such outbreaks, provide for a chain of responses requiring the country where the outbreak occurs to report to the WHO and the WHO to respond and to interfere. However, while the affected States were slow to report to the WHO, the WHO waited five months before it declared the epidemic a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. Consequently, the UN Security Council interfered with the adoption of UNMEER, the first UN emergency health mission. The Ebola outbreak reveals that the WHO, the primary organization to manage global health, is ill-equipped to deal with a global health security crisis. The International Health Regulations lack an enforcement mechanism and do not provide for the possibility to sanction States in case of non-compliance. The WHO itself lacks the financial means and the capacity to be the key player when a health emergency that potentially poses a threat to global health occurs.

The Ebola crisis also reveals a human rights crisis in the affected countries.  As they have very weak health systems and very poor health infrastructures, these countries lacked the facilities and staff to address the crisis. What is more, given that hospitals were closed after the outbreak, many patients with other compelling needs, including childbirth, were completely left to fend for themselves. In addition, the countries invoked multiple and often over-restrictive forms of quarantine and restrictions on freedom of movement, including school closures and bans on public gatherings. The communication about the risks of traditional burial rites was poor. As such, human rights including the rights to health, information, privacy, freedom of movement and the right to an adequate standard of living were severely compromised.

While the Ebola crisis challenges global health law in several ways, we should not become possessed with the need to address infectious diseases. Over the coming decennia the world will face a dramatic increase in chronic diseases (non-communicable diseases or NCDs), in particular cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. The WHO estimates that by 2030, NCDs will be the leading cause of death in every region in the world. This pandemic will also come with considerable cost: according to the World Economic Forum, NCDs will cost more than $ 30 trillion over the next 20 years, representing 48% of global GDP. We may conclude that compared to the NCD pandemic, Ebola is peanuts.

NCDs disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries (LICs and MICs) where, according to the WHO, nearly three quarters of NCD deaths occur. To give one concrete example: research indicates among slum dwellers in Nigeria’s megacity of Lagos, the overall prevalence of hypertension was 38.2% in 2013. In countries like Nigeria, the cost of NCD medication pushes large segments of the population into poverty. Yet high-income countries also face the rising costs of NCD treatment, medicines in particular. The Netherlands, for example, are currently witnessing a fierce debate about the high prices of essential medicines to treat cancer and other infectious diseases, some of which are becoming unaffordable to individual patients and to the health system at large.

In this context, it will be important to research the possibilities of regulating unhealthy behavior. Chronic diseases are also called lifestyle diseases as they are generally linked to four shared risk factors that enhance the incidence of these diseases: tobacco use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol. Here it should be taken into account that regulating lifestyle choices is still controversial: due to an emphasis on autonomy and ‘personal responsibility’, especially in a high- income country like the Netherlands, there is resistance to interfering with such choices.

So far, tobacco remains the only risk factor that is successfully regulated through a treaty. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was adopted in 2003, has led to a tightening of many domestic tobacco laws and to several domestic court cases addressing the harmful effects of tobacco. Should and could international law also regulate the other risk factors, in particular unhealthy food and diets? How can international law tackle the responsibilities of the industry that produces these products? These are some matters that are discussed in the context of international or global health law, an exciting and important new field of public international law that is currently receiving much attention internationally.

photoBrigit Toebes is a Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Groningen, specializing in international health law and the intersection of human rights and health. The topics outlined in this post are further explored in the forthcoming Research Handbook on Global Health Law, edited by Prof Toebes and Gian Luca Burci of the World Health Organisation.

This post is a cross-post from the blog set up by members of the Global Health Law Research Centre of the University of Groningen. For the original post, see here; for the Dutch version, please refer to this link.


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