WHO Proclaims Coronavirus a Global Health Emergency

There are now more than 8,000 coronavirus cases, with at least 98 cases in 18 countries outside China. At least 170 people have died, all in China. The World Health Organization stopped short of calling for travel bans.

by Rick Sobey, Boston Herald / January 31, 2020
People wearing protective face masks walk in Hong Kong, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak sparked by a new virus in China that has spread to more than a dozen countries a global emergency after the number of cases spiked more than tenfold in a week, including the highest death toll in a 24-hour period reported Friday. AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

(TNS) — Coronavirus has “escalated into an unprecedented outbreak” with more than 8,000 cases in a month, prompting the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency, the United Nations agency’s chief said.

“Over the past few weeks, we have witnessed the emergence of a previously unknown pathogen, which has escalated into an unprecedented outbreak, and which has been met by an unprecedented response,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who stopped short of calling for travel bans and focused instead on providing aid to countries with weaker health care systems.

There are now more than 8,000 coronavirus cases, with at least 98 cases in 18 countries outside China. At least 170 people have died, all in China. The number of coronavirus cases in one month has already topped the nine-month SARS outbreak in 2003, and Ghebreyesus noted the spread of the virus between people beyond China.

John Connor of Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories said the declaration “provides worldwide notice that the virus is rapidly spreading and there is a risk that it will be transmitted not only between people in China but that it will be transmitted between people in other countries as well.”

At least 15 airlines worldwide have stopped service to China over coronavirus fears. In Massachusetts — with more than 25,000 Chinese nationals enrolled in local colleges and three flights arriving from China daily — Massport, Gov. Charlie Baker and other local officials have declined to call for travel bans, deferring to federal authorities who for now are monitoring the disease.

But House Minority Leader Brad Jones said, “The coronavirus is a serious and growing public health threat, the nature of which we are still learning about. We need to be prepared to take further action relative to travel with China, including the temporary suspension of such travel other than to allow U.S. citizens to return home.”

A day after a “sick” person flying from China into Logan was determined not to meet the criteria for coronavirus, passengers who flew in from Shanghai Thursday said they were not screened for the disease here.

“Before we took off from the Shanghai airport, they screened our body temperatures to make sure none of us had a fever or anything, but not when we arrived in Boston,” said Wan Wu, who arrived on a Hainan Airlines flight wearing a protective mask.

Courtney Kansler of WorldAware — a Maryland-based company that advises clients on international travel risks — said the “highest risk is in transit in airports.” The coronavirus is transferred from person-to-person by droplets when someone coughs or sneezes, making airports a Petri dish of disease.

When asked if the WHO declaration of an international health emergency was affecting its operations, a spokeswoman for Massport referred a Herald reporter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. The agency has not called for travel bans or screening at airports.

The CDC on Thursday announced that coronavirus had for the first time spread from one person to another inside the U.S. The husband of a Chicago woman got infected after she returned from China with the disease.

The declaration of the public health emergency by the WHO should “help commit additional funding to combating the spread of the disease,” BU’s Connor said. “It hopefully leads to additional health care responses and global cooperation to fight the spread of this new virus.”

Herald wire services contributed to this report.


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