The World Health Organization just declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency

Doctors and public-health experts at the World Health Organization in Geneva have declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a “public-health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC).

The virus has so far sickened at least 8,100 people and killed 170 in China, where it originated. Cases have been reported in 19 other countries.

“Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak,” WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Thursday when he announced the emergency declaration. “We don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were spread in a country with a weaker health system. We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”

The PHEIC designation is reserved by the WHO for the most serious, sudden, unexpected outbreaks that cross international borders. These diseases pose a public-health risk without bounds and may “require a coordinated international response,” the WHO said on its website.

The global health-emergency declaration has been around since 2005, and it’s been used only five times before.

A global emergency was declared for two Ebola outbreaks, one that started in 2013 in West Africa and another that’s been ongoing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 2018. Other emergency alerts were used for the 2016 Zika epidemic, polio emerging in war zones in 2014, and for the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009.

The emergency designation puts the 196 member countries of the WHO on alert that they should step up precautions, such as screening travelers and monitoring international trade in hopes of preventing the outbreak from spreading out of control.

Last week, the WHO committee was split about whether to declare the new coronavirus outbreak — which experts suspect originated at an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan — an international emergency. Members delayed their final decision by a day, saying they needed more time to gather information about the virus’s severity and transmissibility.

“This declaration is not a vote of no confidence in China,” Ghebreyesus said on Thursday.

Symptoms of the coronavirus — which is in the same family as the common cold, pneumonia, MERS, and SARS — can range from mild to deadly. Most of the fatalities so far have been among the elderly and patients with preexisting conditions. Only a laboratory test can confirm that a virus is the novel coronavirus.

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