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Elderly men sit at a park wearing face masks in Hong Kong, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. Hong Kong cut off rail service to mainland China at midnight on Wednesday to Thursday to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus to the city.
AP Photo/Kin Cheung

WHO Declares Coronavirus Outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern after an Emergency Committee meeting on Thursday. 

The purpose of the emergency declaration is to notify United Nations member states that the coronavirus outbreak has reached a certain level of severity. The declaration comes as nearly 7,800 cases of the virus have been confirmed worldwide.

The coronavirus, a respiratory illness spread through human-to-human transmission, has claimed the lives of 170 people in China. Symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, cough, pneumonia, acute respiratory syndrome, and kidney failure.

While the WHO initially declined to declare the outbreak a global emergency due to insufficient information after meeting twice last week, the international health agency has since reconsidered due to concern over the potential spread of the virus to countries with weaker health systems.

During Thursday’s meeting, the Emergency Committee advised the WHO to increase preparation and support in vulnerable countries, and continue to collaborate with technical experts to work on vaccines and assess how to contain the outbreak on a global scale.

The committee also praised China for its efforts to contain the outbreak, recommending that the country both enhance public health measures and surveillance of current coronavirus cases.

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Addressing the 18 countries with coronavirus cases outside of China, the committee noted that preventing the spread of infection is key to avoiding a large-scale outbreak like the one in Wuhan. 

While the Emergency Committee recognized that trade and travel restrictions are mostly ineffective, they did suggest that temporary travel restrictions might be useful in select circumstances. 

“In such situations, countries should perform risk and cost-benefit analyses before implementing such restrictions to assess whether the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks,” the committee said in a statement released after the meeting. “Countries must inform WHO about any travel measures taken, as required by the International Health Regulations. Countries are cautioned against actions that promote stigma or discrimination, in line with the principles of Article 3 of the IHR.”

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Going on to stress global solidarity and preparedness, the committee urged the larger international community to share all research and information on the virus with the WHO and each other. Working together is critical in order to produce effective treatment and vaccines, the committee said. 

The Emergency Committee is expected to reconvene in three months.