WHO To Meet About Monkeypox Crisis: What is a Global Health Emergency?

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The World Health Organization (WHO) will meet on Thursday, 23 June, to decide whether the sudden spread of monkeypox cases across the world is a global health emergency.

As of 20 June, the WHO had reported that over 2500 cases of monkeypox had been recorded from 42 countries.

The WHO has stated that sudden spread of the virus to countries it isn't endemic to, with those infected showing no prior history of travel to endemic nations, is a cause for concern. It had also recommended the use of smallpox vaccines to treat or immunize those at high risk, while advising against mass inoculation.

While Monkeypox is endemic to parts of West and Central Africa, the WHO has declared that it wil stop using the term endemic to differentiate the two types of nations, for a unified response.

As the WHO meets to decide what happens next as far as the monkeypox outbreak goes, and whether it qualifies as a global health emergency, let's answer the question - what is a global health emergency?

Monkeypox: What is a Global Health Emergency

The official term for a pandemic of international, global proportions isn't a Global Health Emergency. It's technically classified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) under the International Health Regulations (IHR), by the WHO.

In simple terms, a PHEIC or a global health emergency is “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a public health risk to other States through the international spread of disease and to potentially require a coordinated international response”.

This definition suggests a situation that is:

  • serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected;

  • carries implications for public health beyond the affected State’s national border; and

  • may require immediate international action.

With monkeypox cases reaching potential community transmission levels in parts of the world it has never existed in, the outbreak meets all the requirements of a global health emergency.

How Many Times Has WHO Declared a Global Health Emergency?

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. It is a rarely used designation.

The last time the term was used by the WHO was at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Prior to that, the UN body had declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) a public-health emergency of international concern (PHEIC).

This was the fifth time that the agency had declared a global emergency. The previous four include the H1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic (2009), West Africa's Ebola outbreak (2014-2016), polio (2014) and Zika virus (2016).

Declaring the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern would lead to a boost in public health measures, funding and resources to prevent further spread.

Restrictions and higher security for trade and travel. Airport screening of passengers has already begun in many of the affected and unaffected regions.

The Role of the Emergency Committee

The Emergency Committee advises the Director-General of the WHO on the 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 PHEIC, or by other States Parties, to prevent or reduce the international spread of disease and avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic.

  • The Emergency Committee continues to provide advice to the Director-General throughout the duration of the PHEIC, including any necessary changes to the recommended measures and on the determination of PHEIC termination.

  • WHO maintains an IHR roster of experts and the members of an IHR Emergency Committee are selected from this roster and/or WHO expert advisory panels and committees.

  • At least one member of the Emergency Committee should be an expert nominated by a State Party within whose territory the event arises.

(With inputs from The Quint's archives)

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Published: 23 Jun 2022, 4:20 PM IST

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