Factbox: The highest level of WHO alert for health emergencies

Factbox: The highest level of WHO alert for health emergencies

On Thursday, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) will gather to determine if monkeypox qualifies as an international emergency, the organization’s highest level of warning. There have only ever been six such crises: COVID-19 (2020), the Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2019), the Zika virus (2016), poliomyelitis (2014), the epidemic of Ebola in West Africa (2014), and the H1 virus that triggered an influenza pandemic (2009).

The statement is largely for attention-grabbing and does not officially unlock funding or new action, although it may lend more weight to WHO advice and actions taken by countries. A committee of experts makes the recommendation, but the final decision rests with the chief executive, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Recent WHO estimates suggest that around 15 million people may have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was declared an emergency by the UN agency in January 2020, about a month after the first reports of a new coronavirus from Wuhan, China.

The WHO does not declare pandemics, but it began using the term to describe COVID-19 in March 2020. For many governments, this is – rather than WHO’s earlier emergency declaration – that began to take concrete action to try to contain the disease, which proved far too late to make a difference. Other outbreaks, such as yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2016, were assessed by the WHO committee but ultimately failed to meet the criteria: an unusual event spreading globally international community that requires cooperation between countries.

An independent panel appointed by the WHO recently said the agency should have declared the novel coronavirus outbreak in China an international emergency sooner. The WHO Emergency Committee on Ebola declared the outbreak an international emergency in July 2019, after DRC authorities had already spent a year battling the disease in an active conflict zone. There have been 3,481 cases and 2,229 deaths.


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