WHO says China coronavirus not global health emergency

United Nations, January 23, 2020: The World Health Organization (WHO) on Thursday declined to declare a global emergency as a deadly respiratory virus spread from China to at least five other countries.

The World Health Organization made the announcement in Geneva at a press conference after the second emergency meeting this week of a WHO committee on the new virus, saying “now is not the time” to call a global health emergency.

Less than a month after the first few cases of illness were reported in Wuhan, China, at least 600 people are known to have been infected, and at least 18 have died. Most who died had underlying health problems, and many were older than 60.

Carried by travelers, the virus has also reached Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and the United States. Investigators in other countries, including Mexico, are evaluating suspected cases.

According to media reports, officials in China have closed transportation links from and within Wuhan, and are imposing travel restrictions on other affected cities. These steps have significantly escalated the country’s efforts to contain the spread of the virus just days before the Lunar New Year holiday, when hundreds of millions travel in and out of the country.

Only five global public health emergency declarations have been made in the past:

  • In 2009, for pandemic influenza
  • In 2014, for a polio resurgence in several countries
  • Again in 2014, for the Ebola epidemic in West Africa
  • In 2016, for the Zika virus epidemic
  • In 2019, for an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The decisions are fraught. Health authorities do not want to cry wolf by raising alarms about an illness that turns out not to be severe — or to ignore a real threat, it was pointe dout.

If they act relatively early in an outbreak, as in this case, they may lack key information about the severity and contagiousness of the disease.

Control measures may save not only lives, but money: the SARS epidemic, caused by a related corona-virus in 2002 and 2003, cost the global economy $30 billion to $100 billion, according to an article published Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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