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

Finally, the World Health Organization has declared that the last outbreak of Ebola in the world is a global health emergency. But what does that mean, exactly?

The decision this week by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to designate the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a long time, a public health emergency of international interest generated a flood of news.

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 response to the outbreak and accelerate the end of the crisis.

But how could I do that? Keep reading

What is a PHEIC?

Sometimes it is easier to define something by talking about what it is not. That is definitely the case when it comes to describing a PHEIC.

Although the name combines “emergency” and “international”, a PHEIC is not necessarily a true global emergency. It could be, say, if a new disease began to spread worldwide or if another flu pandemic began.

But in the case of the last Ebola outbreak, the reality is that people in Indianapolis and Istanbul, Shanghai and Sydney are not at greater risk today than before the PHEIC was declared. The statement is not the WHO way to send a flare to warn that Ebola will spread throughout the world from the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This event is a crisis in the affected region of the DRC and a real risk for neighboring countries. Governments around the world should pay more attention, but the risk of global spread is low

So that’s what it is not. But what is this?

A PHEIC is defined as “an extraordinary event that represents a risk to the public health of other countries through international propagation and that potentially requires a coordinated international response”. In summary, it is a tool that the member states of WHO have given to the global health agency to help them deal with difficult situations of communicable diseases.

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

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