WHO international health emergency declarations
In the event of a deadly outbreak, World Health Organization (WHO) experts can declare whether the disease constitutes a global health emergency. It's a distinction the WHO has only made five times in the past decade.
A public health emergency
In the event of a deadly disease outbreak, a group of World Health Organization (WHO) experts can declare a "public health emergency of international concern," or PHEIC, to trigger global action. Since the procedures to declare a PHEIC were implemented in 2005, the WHO has only done so six times. Let's take a look back at the prior instances.
In 2020, the WHO declared a global health emergency over a new coronavirus that originated in China but that spread to several countries across the world, including Germany. Officials said the declaration was due to "the potential for this virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems which are ill-prepared to deal with it."
It is estimated that the 2019 H1N1 influenza (also known as swine flu) pandemic, which began in Veracruz, Mexico, killed as many as 284,500 people. That's more than 15 times the original estimate of 18,500. The UK-based journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, however, has suggested that the true number of dead could have ultimately been as high as 579,000. Here, a Chinese medic prepares a vaccination.
Ebola in West Africa
The outbreak of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia between 2013 and 2016 was deadlier than all other Ebola outbreaks combined, killing at least 11,300 people. A 2018 study by the Oxford-based Journal of Infectious Diseases estimated the outbreak cost the three countries involved as much as $53 billion (€48 billion).
In 2014, Pakistan's failure to curb the spread of polio prompted the WHO to declare the disease's resurgence a PHEIC. The warning covered Pakistan, Syria and Cameroon. At the time, Pakistan accounted for more than one-fifth of the world's 417 reported cases.
In 2016, the Zika virus was declared a PHEIC by the WHO. The outbreak was identified in Brazil in 2015. Ultimately, the disease spread to 60 countries, with 2,300 confirmed cases of microcephaly among newborns. Microcephaly causes birth defects such as abnormally small heads, which can lead to developmental problems.
Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
In July 2019, after its fourth meeting since the DRC's outbreak began, the WHO Emergency Committee on Ebola declared it a PHEIC. As of January 14, 2020, the WHO had confirmed 3,406 cases of Ebola in the DRC, including some 2,236 deaths since the outbreak began in August 2018. The WHO estimates the disease could cost the DRC as much as $1 billion (€900,000 million).