Assessment of the Implementation of the International Health Regulations during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Portugal as a Case Study

Introduction: The International Health Regulations (IHR) were developed to prepare countries to deal with public health emergencies. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 underlined the need for international coordination, although few attempts were made to evaluate the integrated implementation of the IHR’s core capacities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The aim of this study was to evaluate whether IHR shortcomings stem from non-compliance or regulatory issues, using Portugal as a European case study due to its size, organization, and previous discrepancies between self-reporting and peer assessment of the IHR’s core capacities.
Methods: Fifteen public health medical residents involved in contact tracing in mainland Portugal interpreted the effectiveness of the IHR’s core capabilities by reviewing the publicly available evidence and reflecting on their own field experience, then grading each core capability according to the IHR Monitoring Framework. The assessment of IHR enforcement considered efforts made before and after the onset of the pandemic, covering the period up to July 2021.
Results: Four out of nine core IHR capacities (surveillance; response; risk communication; and human resource capacity) were classified as level 1, the lowest. Only two were graded level 3 (preparedness; and laboratory), the highest. The remaining three) (national legislation, policy & financing; coordination and national focal point communication; and points of entry) were classified as level 2.
Conclusion: Portugal exemplifies the extent to which implementation of the IHR was not fully achieved, which has resulted in the underperformance of several core capacities. There is a need to improve preparedness and international cooperation in order to harmonize and strengthen the global response to public health emergencies, with better political, institutional, and financial support.

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