Coronavirus: what other public health emergencies has the WHO declared?

Five previous emergencies declared since 2009 with some still active

The Wuhan coronavirus is just the latest disease that the World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled as a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC). In the past 10 years there have been five other such announcements, covering four diseases.

However, the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) coronavirus, first identified in 2012, and the yellow fever outbreak in Angola that emerged in late 2015 are not among them, despite emergency committees convening.

While some emergencies are now over, others such as the poliovirus, are still active.

2019: Ebola

It took four meetings of the WHO emergency committee for the Ebola outbreak, which began in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2018, to be declared a PHEIC.

“The committee cited recent developments in the outbreak in making its recommendation, including the first confirmed case in Goma, a city of almost 2 million people on the border with Rwanda, and the gateway to the rest of DRC and the world,” the WHO noted.

2016: Zika virus

In February 2016 the WHO declared the mosquito-borne Zika virus a PHEIC – a declaration largely driven by concern over links between the disease and certain neurological conditions including microcephaly. It is a congenital condition in which babies are born with unusually small heads.

2014: Ebola

The declaration in August 2014 related to Ebola in west Africa, and came with a plea for the international community to help countries affected by the disease.

“Countries affected to date simply do not have the capacity to manage an outbreak of this size and complexity on their own,” said Margaret Chan, the WHO’s director general, at the time. “I urge the international community to provide this support on the most urgent basis possible.”

However, the response of the UN body to the disaster has been criticised in a number of reports.

“This PHEIC occurred five months after the WHO first received information about the Ebola threat, by which point there had already been 1,711 cases and 932 deaths. Such delay undoubtedly contributed to the unprecedented scale of the outbreak,” wrote Clare Wenham, a London School of Economics Fellow in Global Health Politics, in an analysis of the WHO response.

2014: Poliovirus

In May 2014 the international spread of polio was deemed a PHEIC by the WHO.

“If unchecked, this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine-preventable diseases,” the WHO statement read.

The situation is ongoing. In October 2019, the WHO reported: “The committee unanimously agreed that the risk of international spread of poliovirus remains a public health emergency of international concern.”

2009: Swine flu

Swine flu, or more precisely, swine influenza A(H1N1), was the first PHEIC to be declared by the WHO. The designation had been created with the establishment of new international health regulations that came into force in 2007. These were created following the Sars outbreak that began in 2002, infecting more than 8,000 people and claiming about 800 lives.


Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

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