Episode 81 - Public Health Emergencies of International Concern

Episode 81 – Public Health Emergencies of International Concern

Vismita Gupta Smith

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How does the WHO determine that an outbreak or event constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern? What are the procedures that this triggers in countries? Hello and welcome to Science in 5, I’m Vismita Gupta-Smith and we’re talking today with Dr. Carmen Dolea. Hi Carmen. Let’s start with how the World Health Organization has determined that the outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

Dr. Carmen International

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Vismita, thank you for the question. In 2005, in the wake of the SARS outbreak, the nations of the world came together to review the International Health Regulations, a legally binding tool for protecting, preventing, and responding to public health events with the risk of international spread. According to this tool, countries agreed to notify WHO when an event responds to two out of four questions: Is the event unusual? If it has a significant impact on public health? Does it pose an international spread risk and does it pose a risk of international travel restrictions?

Dr. Carmen International

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On the basis of these notifications from countries regarding certain events, the Director-General shall invite a group of experts, internationally known experts, on this particular disease, called the Emergency Committee, for their advice. The Panel of Experts reviews this evidence and presents its views to the Director-General in response to three main questions: Is the event exceptional? Does it pose a threat to other countries through international proliferation? Does it require a coordinated international response? The Director-General reviews all information, and decides whether the event constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.

Vismita Gupta Smith

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Carmen, what actions does that trigger in countries?

Dr. Carmen International

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On the advice of the Emergency Committee, once an event has been identified as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, the Director-General has issued a set of recommendations for countries to take actions aimed at saving lives and protecting the livelihoods of the affected population.

Dr. Carmen International

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These actions may include, for example, increased surveillance to identify new cases, isolate cases and quarantine contacts, for example, measures at borders, airports, ports or entry points for screening, informing residents of the risks related to the disease, and communicating additional preventive measures that individuals can take , as well as potential additional research that may be required to develop treatments or vaccines if they do not yet exist. These measures are reviewed regularly and their main objective and purpose is to control the outbreak at the source or reduce its spread internationally.

Vismita Gupta Smith

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So, Carmen, how does the WHO decide, when and how does it decide that an outbreak is no longer a public health emergency of international concern?

Dr. Carmen Dolly

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Since the revisions of the International Health Regulations in 2005, there have been seven events identified to constitute a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. These have included the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, the polio outbreak in the context of polio eradication, the Zika virus outbreak and associated neurological complications, and most recently, COVID-19 and a multi-country outbreak of monkeypox.

Dr. Carmen Dolly

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For the event constituting a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, based on the development of the situation, the Director-General shall re-meet the Emergency Committee to seek its advice on whether the event continues to be an unusual or unexpected event? Does it still pose a threat to other countries through international proliferation? Is a coordinated international response still required based on the assessment and opinions of the Emergency Committee and additional information from affected countries? The Director-General then makes the final decision to end or continue a public health emergency of international concern.

Vismita Gupta Smith

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Thank you Carmen. This flag was at 5 today. Until then next time, stay safe, stay healthy, and stick to the science.

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