The World Health Organisation (WHO), on January 31, declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, as the outbreak continues to spread beyond China and to countries with weaker health systems.
"I am declaring a public health emergency of international concern over the global outbreak of 2019-nCoV, not because of what is happening in China, but because of what is happening in other countries," said Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the WHO.
"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," WHO Director General said.
The decision was taken at the second meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) in Geneva, Switzerland.
India, on January 30, reported its first confirmed case in South Indian state Kerala. The patient is currently in an isolation ward of a hospital, and the condition is said to be stable while the state health authorities are closely monitoring the case.
According to WHO there are now 7,711 confirmed and 12,167 suspected cases in China. Of the confirmed cases, 13,70 are severe and 170 people have died. Several reports suggest that the death toll had climbed 200.
Outside China, there are now 83 cases in 18 countries. Of these, only seven had no history of travel in China. There has been human-to-human transmission in three countries outside China. One of these cases is severe and there have been no deaths.
The Emergency Committee acknowledged that there are still many unknowns, cases have now been reported in five WHO regions in one month, and human-to-human transmission has occurred outside Wuhan and outside China.
"The Committee believes that it is still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts, and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk," WHO said in a statement.
"It is important to note that as the situation continues to evolve, so will the strategic goals and measures to prevent and reduce spread of the infection. The Committee agreed that the outbreak now meets the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and proposed the following advice to be issued as Temporary Recommendations," the statement added.
WHO expressed satisfaction over measures taken by China so far to contain the outbreak.
What constitutes a public health emergency
WHO declares a disease outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern when there is an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other countries through international spread of disease.
There are two conditions to define an outbreak as PubliC Health Emergency - first, the outbreak must pose a risk to more than one country; and second it outbreak requires a coordinated international response
The responsibility of determining whether an event is within this category lies with the WHO Director-General and requires the convening of a committee of experts – the IHR Emergency Committee.
This committee advises the Director General on the recommended measures to be promulgated on an emergency basis, known as temporary recommendations. Temporary recommendations include health measures to be implemented by the State Party experiencing the Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or by other States Parties, to prevent or reduce the international spread of disease and avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic.
Previously WHO had declared five disease outbreaks as Public Health Emergency of International Concern, these are Swine Flu - 2009, Polio - 2014, Zika - 2016, Ebola - 2014, 2019.