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What makes WHO declare a disease outbreak a public health emergency?

Topics Covered: Important International institutions, agencies and fora, their structure, mandate.

What makes WHO declare a disease outbreak a public health emergency?

What to study?

For Prelims and Mains: Coronavirus- spread, symptoms and prevention, WHO public health emergency.

Context: World Health Organization declares coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern.

What necessitated this?

Rising numbers and evidence of person-to-person transmission in a handful of cases outside of China.

Greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill-prepared to deal with it.

What is a public health emergency of international concern?

As per WHO, it is “an extraordinary event” that constitutes a “public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease” and “to potentially require a coordinated international response.” Previous emergencies have included Ebola, Zika and H1N1.

The responsibility of declaring an event as an emergency lies with the Director-General of the WHO and requires the convening of a committee of members.


Declaring the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern would allow WHO to better coordinate the international response and hold nations to account if they overstep the organization’s standards — which may pertain to travel, trade, quarantine or screening.


The novel coronavirus (a new strain of coronavirus which has not been previously identified in human beings) is one among a large family of coronaviruses that can cause illnesses ranging from the common cold to the more serious Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

  • The source of the novel coronavirus is not yet known and there is no treatment for it so far.
  • The infection has killed more than 100 people in China, and according to the WHO’s latest situation report, there are 5,997 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country and 68 in the rest of the world.
  • Other countries where confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported include Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Thailand, Nepal, Germany, France, the US and Canada.

Sources: the Hindu.