WHO declares international public health emergency due to Wuhan coronavirus: what it means and what will happen now

With 171 deaths, at least, and more than 8,000 affected, the Wuhan virus has officially become an international concern. This was stated in a recent meeting by the WHO, who has set the alarm.

This is mainly due to the fact that the virus is not only wreaking havoc in China, but that it has been confirmed in all regions of the country as well as in other surrounding territories, which joins other suspected but unconfirmed cases, outside the country's borders. The WHO's decision is preventive, and is usually made when a contagious disease appears in several foci with the potential to spread, especially when its virulence is unknown. The WHO has indicated that they have made this decision especially because of the spread outside of China.

International public health emergency due to the Wuhan coronavirus

On January 22, the WHO committee met to report the status of the situation. As reported by the organization's general director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, they still needed to discuss it to carry out an action. He told the press that: "The decision on whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international interest is one that we take very seriously [at the WHO], and we are only prepared to declare it with due consideration of all the evidence " A day later they decided not to elevate the emergency to an international case.

Soon after, the alert went from moderate to severe, but only in China. In light of the expansion given by the virus in recent days, and after reviewing all the data, the organization has decided to declare the situation an emergency for public health, which means opening the framework for member states to apply for international aid and assistance. The most effective means of communication are also prepared, advised by the organization's experts.

What is going to happen now and what does this measure mean?

As we explained, together with these communication channels, an even closer monitoring of the activity of the virus begins, so that it can be controlled at every step outside of China, which was already controlling the situation exhaustively. This would mean taking stronger control and quarantine measures in the event that this continues. But, above all, declaring a public health emergency means maintaining immediate, clear and fast communication channels so that the population and the agencies and governments have access to the most rigorous information at all times.

For its part, as they collect from the WHO, the organization will now review with each of the affected States the possible consequences of the presence of the virus. By analyzing each case in detail, the organization determines a series of tips and measures to adopt. However, it is each government that has the responsibility and the final decision to take them. The designation means that the WHO has officially classified the coronavirus as an extraordinary event that puts other countries at risk and needs a coordinated response. They say they are concerned that the disease will spread to countries with poor public health capacities.

In Spain, for example, the coronavirus alert is already activated preventively, even before the emergency declaration. We have an action protocol in the case of suspected coronavirus infection. This protocol is executed only when faced with the possibility of finding someone infected preventively. With the international emergency, all means related to the protocol are prepared for an emergency response. Control measures for travelers from other countries could also be increased, but no extraordinary measures will be taken at this time. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, says that from the WHO "in fact, we are opposed" to limiting trade and travel with China.

The international public health emergency is, after all, a warning, without binding intention. It is a way of warning and opening the way of cooperation and communication by WHO to the entire international community. It is each country that has the responsibility to ensure the well-being of its citizens, either by following the organization's recommendations or by other means that the State deems appropriate.

What do we know about the Wuhan coronavirus virus?

At this point, Wuhan remains a relatively little-known virus, although we have more and more information. For the moment, we know that its origin is in a fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where in December of last year the first infected appeared. We know that there are already thousands of confirmed cases and as many suspects. The vast majority of the deceased come from Wuhan, although new deaths outside the country are not ruled out.

One of the reasons for launching the alert is that some of those infected outside the country had not recently been to China, which shows one of the most disturbing unknowns about the virus: its transmission mechanisms are still unclear. Yes, this is enough of a question to raise the international alarm as it is more difficult to know what to expect from the virus, although we know that its mortality, at the moment, is lower than that of other influenza viruses.

During the press conference, the WHO director-general reiterated his praise for China. "China is setting a new standard in terms of outbreak response," said Tedros. "We would have seen many more cases outside of China already, and probably more deaths, if it weren't for the government's efforts."

What else do we know about the virus? Denoted as 2019-nCoV by the WHO, it is a single-stranded RNA coronavirus. It was sequenced at the end of last year, after the first infections, with the aim of being able to detect it in patients. As a result of this work, we know today that it has many similarities to bat beta-coronaviruses. This sets it apart from other coronaviruses, the typical influenza virus causing acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS, or the Eastern Coronavirus Respiratory Syndrome, MERS. However, this one is less deadly but more contagious, which involves a number of somewhat trickier control problems.

As we already told you, coronaviruses are known for being among the most common examples of zoonoses, that is, of contagion from animals. These relatively simple viruses often have a gene pool in animal populations. At the moment, there are still many doubts about it ... Without a doubt, we are facing a dangerous pathogen, especially for its virulence, but not so much for its lethality. We will still have to stay tuned, as we probably still have a few weeks left with news about the progress of the virus.

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