UNITED NATIONS, Jan 31 (APP):The World Health Organization, a U.N. agency, has declared a global health emergency as the coronavirus outbreak spread well beyond China, where it emerged last month, and called on all countries to take urgent measures to contain the respiratory disease..
The move reversed the decision made by W.H.O., which is based in Geneva, just a week ago to hold off such a declaration. Since then, there have been thousands of new cases in China and clear evidence of human-to-human transmission in several other countries, including the United States.
All of which warranted a reconsideration by the W.H.O.’s emergency committee, officials said.
The declaration “is not a vote of no-confidence in China,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general said. “On the contrary, the W.H.O. continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
The declaration comes now, he said, because of fears that the coronavirus may reach countries with weak health care systems, where it could run amok, potentially infecting millions of people and killing thousands.
Latest WHO figures state there are more than 7,800 confirmed cases globally, with 7,736 confirmed in China, and a further 12,167 suspected cases inside the country where the outbreak began in Wuhan, a city of around 11 million which remains in lockdown.
So far, 170 people have died in China, and 1,370 cases there are officially described as severe. A total of 124 have recovered and been discharged from hospital.
Outside China, there are 82 confirmed cases, in 18 different countries, and only seven had no history of travel in China.
“There has been human-to-human transmission in three countries outside China”, according to a statement released by WHO’s Emergency Committee. “One of these cases is severe and there have been no deaths.”
When the committee met last week, there were “divergent views” on whether the outbreak which began last month, constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), but the expert body convened by Tedros, the W.H.O. chief, was in agreement on Thursday.
“The main reason for this declaration is not what is happening in China, but what is happening in other countries”, said the WHO chief, praising the “extraordinary measures” taken there by authorities.
“China quickly identified the virus and shared its sequence, so that other countries could diagnose it quickly and protect themselves, which has resulted in rapid diagnostic tools”, said the statement from the Committee.
With concern rising that less developed countries will be more vulnerable, China has agreed to work internationally, with others who need support and “the measures China has taken are good not only for that country, but also for the rest of the world”, the statement added.
However, there remain “many unknowns”, the Committee warned, concerning the speed and spread of the epidemic.
“The Committee believes that it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.”
Tedros tweeted following the meeting: “We must remember that these are people, not numbers. More important than the declaration of a public health emergency are the committee’s recommendations for preventing the spread…and ensuring a measured and evidence-based response.”
He said there was there was “no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade. We call on all countries to implement decisions that are evidence-based and consistent. W.H.O. stands ready to provide advice to any country that is considering what measures to take.”
The Committee said evidence has shown that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies “may be ineffective and may divert resources from other interventions.
“Further, restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses and may have negative effects” on the economies of those countries affected.
“Countries are reminded that they are legally required to share information with WHO” now the health emergency is officially declared, said the Committee.
Despite encouraging countries not to impose blanket restrictions on trade and travel, “in certain specific circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with limited response capacities and capabilities, or where there is high intensity of transmission among vulnerable populations.”
W.H.O. is calling for greater support for low- and middle-income countries, to support their reponse to any cases, and allow them access to vaccines and drugs, as well as better surveillance and diagnostic tools.