The head of the World Health Organization is “very concerned” about the rising number of COVID deaths around the world, he said on Tuesday, just days before his committee is due to meet to determine s end or prolong the global public health emergency.
Global COVID deaths have been on the rise since December, Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference, adding that over the past eight weeks, 170,000 people have died from the virus.
“These are just reported deaths,” he said. “The actual number of deaths is much higher.”
The global public health organization’s Emergency Committee will meet on Friday to vote on whether to end the organization’s COVID emergency status after three years. Ghebreyesus said he would “not get ahead” of the committee but remains “very concerned about the situation in many countries and the increasing number of deaths”.
“While we are clearly in better shape than three years ago when the pandemic hit, the global collective response is once again strained,” said Ghebreyesus, who will make the final decision after receiving recommendations from the committee.
Factors driving the tension include too few people being vaccinated and immunized and too few people having access to antivirals, in addition to the fragility of one health care system in the face of other threats like influenza and RSV. A “torrent of pseudoscience and misinformation” is also contributing, he added.
“My message is clear: do not underestimate this virus,” he said. “He has, and will continue to surprise us, and he will continue to kill unless we do more.”
Death toll does not include China
In mid-December, Ghebreyesus said he hoped the global public health emergency would end in 2023. At the time, weekly deaths worldwide stood at 10,000, a fifth of what they were during Omicron’s peak in January 2022.
“It’s still 10,000 too many, and countries can still do a lot to save lives, but we’ve come a long way,” he said at the time.
Reported COVID deaths stand at 53,000 from mid-December to mid-January, a 20% increase from the same period a month ago, WHO said in an epidemiological update of January 19. The total does not include the nearly 60,000 COVID deaths reported by China over a similar period, as the WHO is awaiting further details about them, the report said. Reported deaths worldwide for the pandemic total 6.7 million.
Reported deaths have increased in the Americas and Europe, as well as the Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean regions, over the past month. Reported deaths fell 76% in Africa and 56% in Southeast Asia during the same period, according to the report.
The definition of an international emergency
A public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) is defined by the international health regulations as “an extraordinary event which is determined to constitute a risk to public health [WHO member states] by the international spread of disease and potentially require a coordinated international response,” according to the WHO. This implies that the situation is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected” and may require immediate international action.
Once a potential emergency is reported to WHO by a member state, the organization convenes an emergency committee of international experts to make a recommendation to the WHO Director-General as to whether it constitutes a USPPI .
However, the final decision rests with the general manager. In July, Ghebreyesus declared an international public health emergency for mpox – the new name for monkeypox recommended by the organization last fall to reduce stigma – when the committee failed to reach a two-way consensus. times, claiming that the criteria of international health regulations required him to do so.
Emergency committees also provide advice on whether to terminate USPPIs, which must be reviewed every three months. There are currently WHO global public health emergencies for COVID, polio and mpox. Emergency committees have been called seven more times in the past for diseases such as Ebola (three times), H1N1 and MERS. They can also be called for chemical agents and radioactive materials, as well as bacterial diseases.
The purpose of declaring a USPPI is to facilitate international coordination on diagnostics, treatments and/or vaccines. But critics say such statements can impose economic burdens on affected countries, especially if they result in travel and trade restrictions.
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