WHO to decide whether China coronavirus is a global health emergency — Here’s what that means

A Chinese girl wears a protective mask as her mother pushes her on a suitcase to board a train at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China.

Kevin Frayer | Getty Images

The World Health Organization on Wednesday will convene a panel of experts in Geneva, Switzerland, to consider whether a mysterious coronavirus that has killed at least 6 people and sickened hundreds of others in China should be a global health emergency.

The meeting comes two days after global health officials said that the respiratory illness, which has evoked memories of the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, is capable of spreading from person to person. This weekend, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Homeland Security began screening people traveling to the United States from Wuhan, China, where the outbreak is believed to have started.

WHO doesn’t enact these emergencies easily, public health officials say. The international health agency has only applied the emergency designation five times since the rules were implemented in the mid-2000s.

What is coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that usually infect animals but can sometimes evolve and spread to humans. Symptoms in humans include fever, coughing and shortness of breath, which can progress to pneumonia.

Public health officials have confirmed more than 300 cases of the new coronavirus, labeled “2019-nCoV,” in China. Some of the patients are critically ill. Health officials have also confirmed cases in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Chinese authorities say many of the patients with the illness had come into contact with seafood markets, suggesting the virus is spreading from animals to people. However, health officials say some “limited human-to-human transmission” occurred between close contacts.

How to prevent coronavirus

Global health officials have not recommended any trade or travel restrictions yet.

The CDC, which has deemed the immediate health risk to the American population as “low,” is closely monitoring the situation with WHO officials. The CDC is recommending that people traveling to Wuhan, China, should avoid animals, animal markets and sick people.

People can protect themselves from the virus by washing their hands with soap and water, avoiding touching their eyes, nose or mouth and keeping away from sick people, according to the CDC. Many people in China have purchased face masks to protect themselves from the outbreak.

What is a global health emergency?

WHO defines the emergency, also known as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as an “extraordinary event” that is “serious, unusual or unexpected.”

The agency’s director-general is responsible for determining whether an event constitutes a global health emergency, after the convening of a committee of top health experts, according to WHO. The committee advises the director-general on how to handle the outbreak and will continue to provide advice throughout the duration of the emergency.

Declaring an emergency gives WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus power to issue recommendations, including asking countries not to implement any travel or trade bans.

The designation can also prompt outside help to raise money and other assistance.

The last time WHO declared a global health emergency was in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo that has killed more than 2,000 people. The agency also declared global emergencies for the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and the 2014 polio and Ebola outbreaks.

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