Reforms To The IHR: Malaysia Should Establish A Health Security Agency — Azrul Mohd Khalib

Following the World Health Assembly’s adoption of IHR amendments, the Galen Centre suggests establishing a Health Security Agency in Malaysia, a dedicated and multidisciplinary organisation, using the Greater Klang Valley Special Task Force as an example.

A few days ago, the 77th World Health Assembly which met in Geneva, adopted a resolution accepting a raft of amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR). Malaysia was among the countries which voted for the resolution.

In line with the adopted amendments, the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy proposes the formation of a health security agency.

Malaysia has important decisions to make. Under the IHR, Malaysia has the right to now evaluate each and every amendment before making a decision whether to accept or opt out of any specific amendments. It can also decide to reject them in totality. 

Drawing from lessons learnt at a bitter and heavy cost during the Covid-19 crisis, we urge the government to accept the provision which calls for the creation of a National IHR Authority to improve coordination of implementation of the Regulations within and among countries.

This health security agency should be a dedicated and multidisciplinary organisation intended to strengthen public health emergency preparedness, surveillance, prevention, and response against current and ongoing health threats such as Covid-19.

The agency should be parked either under the Ministry of Health or the Prime Minister’s Department. It should have at its core leadership, a diverse group of individuals who are skilled in a variety of areas from epidemiology to social welfare. It should not be staffed solely by medical professionals.

The Covid-19 pandemic taught countries and governments a harsh lesson on the need to not just look at the pathogen, the disease it causes, and the epidemiology, but also the socioeconomic implications on economies and countries, and impact on people, communities and lives.

Working within the framework of the National Security Council (NSC) and National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) to manage the Covid-19 crisis demonstrated limitations. These structures are better suited for traditional security threats or natural disasters.

They are ill-equipped, inadequate, and struggle to cope in a public health emergency such as the outbreak of an infectious disease. You cannot control a highly virulent pathogen by threatening to shoot it, impose hefty fines or imprisonment. 

We should use the Greater Klang Valley Special Task Force formed in 2021 as an example of how effective coordination and collaboration could work.

We need an agency which combines the best in public health and social care expertise and experience, takes the lead, and has the mandate to marshal the resources of the government, non-government, academia, and private sector to respond to future threats.”  

We need a framework that is able to plan and prepare better, is more agile, proactive, flexible, and reactive towards emerging challenges such as combating misinformation, disinformation, and pseudoscience.

This health security agency ensures that we have standing capacity to prepare for, prevent and respond to infectious diseases and other threats to health.

That we are able to mount a response that reduces the negative social impact of interventions on the most vulnerable communities and reduces health disparities. This agency is a necessary investment.

The IHR is a legally binding international instrument aimed at preventing the international spread of disease, requires countries to conduct surveillance for potential international health threats of all kinds and report those to WHO, and boost international cooperation and collaboration.

Member states, including Malaysia, submitted over 300 proposed amendments for consideration by the Working Group on Amendments to the IHR.

Azrul Mohd Khalib is the chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy.

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