WHO Declares Public Health Emergency: What Does it Mean? 

Emergency measures will kick in across the world and the emergency will translate into more funding for the crisis.

Updated31 Jan 2020, 05:09 AM IST
Health News
2 min read

The Emergency Committee of UN health agency at the World Health Organisation reconvened in Geneva 30th January, to declare the Novel coronavirus outbreak in China — called 2019-nCov — a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

The novel coronavirus outbreak that originated from Wuhan in China has triggered panic around the world, with cases being reported from across 21 countries. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called it an 'unprecedented outbreak'

What Qualifies as a Public Health Emergency

The WHO defines Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR) as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other states through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”. This definition suggests a situation that is:

  • serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected;

  • carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and

  • may require immediate international action.

The responsibility of determining whether an event is within this category lies with the WHO Director-General and requires the convening of a committee of experts – the IHR Emergency Committee. It is a rarely used declaration.

This is the SIXTH such declaration:

  • Swine flu, 2009 - The H1N1 virus spread across the world, killing nearly 200,000 people

  • Polio, 2014 - Despite coming close to eradication, polio numbers rose in 2013

  • Zika, 2016 - The disease spread rapidly through the South America, affecting 2400 people and killing 29 infants in Brazil.

  • Ebola, 2014 and 2019 - The first emergency over the virus lasted from August 2014 to March 2016, infecting 30,000 people and killing 11,000 in West Africa. A second emergency was declared last year as an outbreak spread in DR Congo.

Declaring the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency would mean a boost in public health measures, funding, and possible restrictions on trade and travel. Airport screening of passengers has already begun in many of the affected and unaffected regions.

The Role of the Emergency Committee

This committee advises the Director General on the recommended measures to be promulgated on an emergency basis, known as temporary recommendations.

  • Temporary recommendations include health measures to be implemented by the State Party experiencing the PHEIC, or by other States Parties, to prevent or reduce the international spread of disease and avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic.

  • The Emergency Committee continues to provide advice to the Director-General throughout the duration of the PHEIC, including any necessary changes to the recommended measures and on the determination of PHEIC termination.

  • WHO maintains an IHR roster of experts and the members of an IHR Emergency Committee are selected from this roster and/or WHO expert advisory panels and committees.

  • At least one member of the Emergency Committee should be an expert nominated by a State Party within whose territory the event arises.

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Published: 23 Jan 2020, 10:36 AM IST

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