Here Is What a WHO Global Health Emergency Means

(Bloomberg) -- The World Health Organization’s Emergency Committee has declared the outbreak of coronavirus in China a “public health emergency of international concern.” The declaration is often referred to by its initials -- PHEIC, pronounced “fake” -- but it gives the WHO real capabilities to affect the course of an epidemic. Governments and companies around the globe are already scrambling to contain the illness, which has shown up in a smattering of cases beyond China. But the move by the global health watchdog could accelerate the response in various ways.

  • The declaration sends the message that a health emergency is serious.
  • It encourages nations to cooperate as much as possible by coordinating personnel, funds and other resources, with the WHO at the helm.
  • By underlining the dangers, the designation can be used to help persuade citizens of infected countries to follow health and hygiene recommendations.
  • A PHEIC gives the WHO’s Emergency Committee authority to recommend travel advisories for cities, regions and countries. These are more often used in rapid, wide, aggressive disease outbreaks like the 2003 SARS epidemic that affected 29 countries, killing 774 people in a matter of months.
  • A PHEIC might hold implications for airlines, including Emirates -- the world’s largest long-hauler -- along with Etihad and Qatar airlines, which collectively have about 160 weekly flights to China and Hong Kong. The Gulf carriers act as hubs, connecting passengers from China to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. While other airlines have cut flights to China, these carriers have been reluctant, as the flights contribute a large portion of their profit.
  • The WHO can review the public health measures put in place by various countries to ensure their scientific validity. If a nation imposes travel or trade restrictions that go beyond its recommendations -- such as refusing entry to suspected patients -- the agency can demand scientific justification.
  • Decisions on a PHEIC always involve politics, according to Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh. West African countries discouraged a declaration in 2014 after they were hit by the largest Ebola virus outbreak on record, mainly because of concern about the economic impact.
  • While the recommendations aren’t enforceable, there’s considerable pressure for countries to abide by the WHO’s advisories. Member states are bound by the WHO’s 2005 International Health Regulations, and thwarting them may be a matter of international law, according to Rebecca Katz, professor and director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.
Here Is What a WHO Global Health Emergency Means

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