What the Ebola emergency means, what it doesn’t mean, and what’s next

Saturday, July 20, 2019
By Paul Martin

By HELEN BRANSWELL
StatNews.com
JULY 19, 2019

Finally, the World Health Organization has declared the world’s latest Ebola outbreak a global health emergency. But what, exactly, does that mean?

The decision this week by the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to designate the long-running Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a public health emergency of international concern generated a flood of news coverage.

Some global health experts have been vociferously insisting for months now that a PHEIC (pronounced FAKE or PHEEK) needed to be declared. They say it could improve the outbreak response and speed an end to the crisis.

But how might it do that? Read on.

What is a PHEIC?

Sometimes it’s easiest to define something by talking about what it’s not. That’s definitely the case when trying to describe a PHEIC.

Despite the fact the name combines “emergency” and “international,” a PHEIC isn’t necessarily a true global emergency. It can be — say, if a new disease began to spread globally or another flu pandemic started.

But in the case of the latest Ebola outbreak, the reality is people in Indianapolis and Istanbul, Shanghai and Sydney are at no greater risk today than they were before the PHEIC was declared. The declaration is not the WHO’s way of sending up a flare to warn that Ebola will be spreading around the globe from northeastern DRC.

This event is a crisis in the affected region of DRC and a real risk to neighboring countries. Governments around the world need to be paying more attention to it, but the risk of global spread is low

So that’s what it isn’t. But what is it?

A PHEIC is defined as “an extraordinary event that poses a public health risk to other countries through international spread and that potentially requires a coordinated international response.” In short, it’s a tool the WHO’s member states have given the global health agency to help it deal with difficult transmissible disease situations.

It was created when the International Health Regulations — a treaty designed to prevent and control the international spread of disease — were updated after the 2003 SARS outbreak.

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