5 Most Significant Public Health Emergencies Declared by WHO

5 Most Significant Public Health Emergencies Declared by WHO

The world health organization (WHO) is the governing authority for public health issues since 1948. They are responsible for providing primary health care, improving access to medical facilities, and training the health care workforce. But sometimes, the spread of certain diseases is uncontrollable, posing an emergency worldwide.

During such outbreaks, the WHO takes necessary steps to diagnose the cause and manage the possible risks associated with the catastrophe. In addition, the organization readily responds to acute health emergencies by developing essential tools to support the outbreak.

A public health emergency is an international incident, which according to WHO, “is an event that is considered to pose a risk to other states through the international spread of disease, and requires a coordinated international response.”

The responsibility to designate an event as a public health emergency requires a committee of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Health Regulation (IHR). Public health emergencies aren’t just infectious diseases; they also include bacterial, chemical, and radioactive materials.

Such situations increase the demand for public health practitioners. For example, during the Covid19 pandemic, healthcare practitioners looked for ways to enhance their knowledge and skills in pandemic-related scenarios. Still, they couldn’t because attending physical universities was a no-go due to social distancing and public gatherings rules in place.

To counter this, institutions started offering online degrees to candidates, which was an excellent reason to continue pursuing medical degrees otherwise impossible due to Covid-19-related restrictions.

Interestingly, a significant increase in applications for a masters in public health online was recorded during this time. Many candidates wanted to understand more about public health and equip themselves with the knowledge necessary to cope with global health issues in a community.

After the establishment of IHR (2005), to date, six significant public health emergencies have been declared by WHO:

1. The H1N1 Pandemic

Back in 2009, a new deadly variant of influenza virus A (H1N1) was detected, different from other variants. It was named “Influenza (H191) pdm09,” and it spread rapidly across the United States into the world. During the first year only, a massive 151,700-575,400 people died.

The virus mainly affected children and middle-aged people. In August 2010, WHO declared an end to the pandemic. Even though influenza continues to affect people worldwide as the seasonal flu, it is still a significant cause of hospitalization and death of the elderly globally.

2. The Poliovirus:

The director-general of WHO in 2014 declared the international spread of the poliovirus as a public health emergency. According to current research, ten countries are active poliovirus carriers and can spread the disease internationally. In some regions like America, the poliovirus was eradicated in 1994. Still, in some countries like India, which was a significant source of active carriers, it took many years to stop the spread.

The international transmission ended in 2014. However, from January to April, active cases were reported in three different countries of central Asia, central Africa, and the Middle East during the low transmissible season.

Additionally, WHO proposed that Pakistan, Cameron, and Syria residents be vaccinated before traveling internationally and have an appropriate record of their vaccination status.

3. The Ebola Virus (WESTERN AFRICA):

The Ebola virus was a deadly virus that spread throughout western Africa. It was known to cause a rare but fatal hemorrhagic fever. To this date, there are still cases being reposted, and the mode of transmission is from human to human. However, in western Africa, in 2018, few cases were reported with a lower fatality rate.

WHO didn’t consider it a public health emergency with a low transmission rate and lesser chances of international spread. However, until November 2018, the number of cases rapidly increased. The outbreak was considered the biggest outbreak in the history of DRC and 2nd biggest Ebola outbreak recorded in the history of the world. Prime focus on the development of vaccine and vaccination of contacts and contacts of contacts helped control the pandemic; however, in June 2020, WHO declared that the outbreak had ended successfully.

4. The Zika Virus:

The Zika virus is known to cause only mild fever symptoms, malaise, maculopapular rash, conjunctivitis, or sometimes asymptomatic infection with a low mortality rate.

WHO compared zika with similar viral infections like dengue, which is known to cause severe complications such as hemorrhagic fever and death – or chikungunya associated with severe prolonged arthritis with a high fatality rate and neurological disorders in surviving patients.

WHO declared the Zika virus a public health emergency based on reported microcephaly, Guillain Barre Syndrome, and other neurological defects during the zika virus outbreak in Brazil and French Polynesia.

Compared to dengue and chikungunya, the zika virus had more chances of causing congenital disabilities. WHO strictly advised avoiding pregnancy with the virus spreading through sexual intercourse after traveling from a zika affected country.

The outbreak of zika virus in dengue virus endemic regions is still under investigation. The epidemic has not ended, and active cases in the American areas and travelers are still detected.

5. The Covid-19 Pandemic:

The ongoing pandemic of Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China. The Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) causes acute respiratory distress syndrome. After the Spanish flu, WHO declared Covid-19 as the worst pandemic globally, with the highest death rate.

The coronavirus is similar to SARS but with a higher reproductive rate and a more significant number of asymptomatic carriers, amplifying the outbreak silently. It also has a higher death rate compared to SARS despite being more fatal than the coronavirus.

WHO declared Covid-19 a public health emergency on 30th January 2020, with 7736 active cases, 179 deaths in china, and 107 active patients in 21 other countries.

The mortality rate was increasing exponentially. Most countries responded to the havoc by taking active measures such as isolation of the affected people, social distancing, masks, and sanitization. The pandemic not only affected public health but also created a significant impact on the global economy. This pandemic requires a strong all-society all-government coordination globally to end.


Since 2007, six pandemics have been declared a public health emergency, with the Ebola virus outbreak occurring twice. The purpose of this declaration is to bring attention to those risk factors that have the potential to cross borders and can wreak havoc.

Such emergencies may appear as a burden to the country’s economy, as there are limitations in trade. Indeed, it’s the biggest challenge and requires coordination amongst governments globally to respond and have control to prevent the spread of the disease and maintain their economy.

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