The Wuhan coronavirus or 2019-nCoV outbreak continues to spread in mainland China and in more than a dozen countries. In the last 24 hours, 42 had succumbed to the infection, making the death toll hit 213, with 9,692 confirmed cases, prompting the World Health Organization (WHO) to declare the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.
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Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General, made the announcement following a meeting of WHO’s emergency committee. A week ago, the committee recommended not to declare the outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), since most of the cases are in China, and there has been a limited spread to other countries. In the course of just a week, more than a dozen countries have declared confirmed cases of the deadly virus, with a 10-fold increase in confirmed cases and deaths in China.
Due to the influx of new cases, the Director-General reconvened the Emergency Committee on the novel coronavirus under the International Health Regulations to determine if the outbreak constitutes a global health emergency on Jan. 30.
“Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak and which has been met by an unprecedented response," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement.
What a global health emergency means
The declaration provides WHO certain capabilities to ramp up the response of governments, health agencies, and organizations across the globe who are racing to contain the spread of the illness.
It also allows the WHO to impose travel advisories for cities, regions, and countries, akin to previous outbreaks that were declared a global health emergency, including the SARS epidemic in 2003, the H1N1 swine flu in 2009, the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, Zika virus outbreak in Brazil in 2016, and just recently, another Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo in 2019.
The WHO declaration comes as individual countries have started to close their borders to China, with airlines canceling flights to and from mainland China. Restrictions of trade to China has also been halted by some nations as precautionary measures to curb the spread of the infection.
“There is 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. WHO stands ready to provide advice to any country that is considering which measures to take,” Dr. Tedros said.
However, measures will be taken to halt the spread of the virus, especially to countries with a weaker health system.
“Our 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. We don’t know what sort of damage this 2019-nCoV virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility,” Dr. Tedros explained.
“For all of these reasons, I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of 2019-nCoV,” he added.
On the ground response
China is building two makeshift 1,000-bed capacity hospitals in just 10 days to accommodate the rising number of infected patients in the country.
Workers are toiling round the clock to meet the deadline of two large hospitals specifically for patients with coronavirus infection. The Huoshenshan Hospital, which will have 1,000 beds and will be operational on Feb.3 and the Leishenshan Hospital, which is a 1,300-bed capacity, 323,000-sq.ft., facility, will open in Feb. 5.
Chinese officials reported that aside from the more than 9,600 confirmed cases, another 102,000 people were under medical observation with possible symptoms of the respiratory illness.
The WHO recommends that people who had a history of travel to China, particularly Wuhan in Hubei province, to seek medical attention when they experience the common signs and symptoms of infection, including fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can lead to pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure, multiple organ failure, and even death.
Human-to-human transmission has been seen in cases of the coronavirus, hence, the WHO urges people to practice precautions to prevent infection, which include regular hand washing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs, avoid close contact with anyone who is sick or showing symptoms of respiratory illness, and covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Wearing protective masks is also recommended.