Wuhan coronavirus pandemic? WHO declares its 6th global public health emergency, but what does it mean?

What was lacking for them to declare an international emergency were deaths abroad and human-to-human transmission outside of China, occurrences which have been both confirmed. Over 100 cases have been detected across 20 countries so far

                            Wuhan coronavirus pandemic? WHO declares its 6th global public health emergency, but what does it mean?
(Chinatopix via AP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Wuhan coronavirus a global public health emergency -- the sixth such declaration from the organization. It comes amid the rapid proliferation of the mysterious virus across the globe, with now over 100 cases detected across 20 countries.

In China, the number of confirmed cases has jumped to 9,692, with a death toll of 213 -- the country has seen over 1980 fresh infections and 43 new fatalities in just one day.

With this announcement, the Wuhan coronavirus has joined the ranks of other outbreaks that have received similar attention from the WHO in the past like Swine Flu in 2009, Polio in 2014, Ebola in 2014, Zika virus in 2016, and Ebola in 2019.

What is a global health emergency?

A global health emergency — formally, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) — is “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 is an international emergency,” Tom Frieden, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Vox. “A PHEIC allows [the WHO] to further lean into the role of global leadership for governments and the private sector,” he adds.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), talks to the media at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

What does this mean for China and other affected countries?

With this declaration in place,  the WHO will review health measures in China and other affected nations. In a press briefing, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom said countries should implement evidence-based public health policies, combat misinformation, share data, and work together to stop the spread of the virus. 

Additionally, the declaration will boost international collaborations, encouraging various countries to share resources while also directing funds in the fight against the Coronavirus outbreak.

The WHO can also issue temporary recommendations on matters like travel advisories or restrictions such as border closures or visa refusals. For now, however, the WHO has not recommended any restrictions on travel or trade.

But if nations implement travel or trade restrictions -- such as refusing entry to suspected patients --  despite WHO's stance, they could be questioned.

According to experts, while these are just recommendations, nations will be under pressure to enforce them. Member states are bound by WHO’s 2005 International Health Regulations, and thwarting them may be a matter of international law,  Rebecca Katz, professor, and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University told Bloomberg.

However, that has not stopped various countries from issuing temporary restrictions. Following reports of two coronavirus cases in Italy, the government has also decided to suspend airline services to and from China. “As far as we know, we are the first country in the European Union to adopt such a precautionary measure,” Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told reporters in Rome.

Recently, the dual-island Caribbean nation Trinidad and Tobago have gone a step further: the government has implemented a 14-day travel restriction on travelers from China. "Persons who are presently living in China or visiting China regardless of your nationality, will not be allowed entry into Trinidad and Tobago for fourteen (14) days after leaving China," said Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, according to a post on his Facebook profile.

The US, on the other hand, has warned Americans against traveling to China and urged those residing in China or other Asian countries to leave.

Why has the WHO declared an emergency now?

Last week, the WHO declined to declare the outbreak a global emergency. "What was lacking for them to declare an international emergency were deaths abroad and human-to-human transmission outside of China,” Geneva-based diplomat following the agency told Reuters.

Besides, premature declarations are capable of hurting affected countries and could lead to flight cancellations and travel or trade restrictions. A 2018 study estimated that another global influenza pandemic could kill 720,000 people and cost $500bn, or 0.6 percent of global income per year. What is more, many economists fear the outbreak will have a significant impact on Chinese growth --making other Asia-Pacific countries also vulnerable to the Chinese slowdown.

Though 99% of the cases have occurred in China, the virus has been spreading across the globe: over 100 people have been sickened in 20 countries, so far. Also, experts have recorded human-human transmission in Germany, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, and now the US, causing panic.

The main reason for declaring the outbreak a global emergency, according to Adhanom, is not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries. “Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to other countries with weaker health systems, which are ill-prepared to deal with it," Tedros Adhanom, Director General, World Health Organisation.

Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.