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World Health Organisation aims to improve quality of health websites

13 November, 2000

People seeking health information on the Internet will get a higher standard and faster results under a bold new World Health Organisation (WHO) proposal.

The initiative aims to cut a direct path through the Internet maze, making it much easier for users to find the accurate and reliable health information they need.

WHO has proposed the creation of ".health" to join the small group of Internet top-level domains (TLDs) such as ".com" and ".org" that currently help users locate websites in their chosen field of interest.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) says that more TLDs are needed urgently to cope with the Web’s rapid expansion, and has recently invited all interested parties to submit new TLD proposals for consideration.

ICANN has the authority to prescribe the means by which TLDs are added to the system which allows users to locate computers on the Internet by a name. This week ICANN meets in Los Angeles to review a host of such submissions. Many national and international health groups have expressed support for the WHO proposal and are hopeful that ".health" will be approved.

"The Internet has become a vital tool for individuals, families, the health profession and the health industry. WHO is the safe pair of hands that Internet users need to help them navigate their way through a mass of often complex and sometimes conflicting health information," says Dr Joan Dzenowagis, the main formulator of the WHO proposal.

"We want – and need - to raise the standard of information about health that gets placed on the Internet, and improve people’s trust in it. As the recognised leading international agency in health, and with over 50 years’ experience in setting standards, WHO is uniquely qualified to do this. Moreover, we also want to draw on the expertise of the many other groups already active in health," Dr Dzenowagis says.

At present there are more than 10,000 health sites on the Internet. Users have no easy way of finding their way through them, nor can they be sure about the accuracy or reliability of the information. There has been no way of making information providers adhere to any code of practice. If the proposal is accepted, WHO, as the sponsoring organisation, would have the responsibility to set policy on how the ".health" TLD - is distributed and used.

WHO’s intention is that ".health" will immediately identify the domain-name holder as adhering to agreed quality and ethical standards, thereby instilling confidence and security in the information provided. Such standards would emerge from international consultations WHO would initiate with governments, medical associations, consumer groups, the health industry and others.