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WHO and UN haven’t declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a “pandemic”, but CNN has

The UN's health agency defines a pandemic when a new virus is causing “sustained community-level outbreaks” while WHO defines it as "the worldwide spread of a new disease"




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Global news network CNN  has begun using the term “pandemic” to describe the COVID-19 outbreak, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) still declining to label it as such.

Beginning Monday (March 9), CNN started using the dreaded “p-word” that the world has been avoiding amidst the overwhelming rise in coronavirus cases—pandemic.

In spite of the virus’ alarming spread across the globe, both the WHO and the UN have held back from calling the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

To date, the coronavirus has infected more than 118,000 people in 116 countries, affecting all continents except Antartica. While more than 65,000 have recovered worldwide, the virus has caused more than 4,200 fatalities and is continuing to spread at a disconcerting rate.

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The UN’s health agency has not yet declared the outbreak a pandemic, which they have previously defined as a situation in which a new virus is causing “sustained community-level outbreaks” in at least two world regions.

Scientists and experts argue that the criteria for a pandemic has already been met—the disease, which originated in China, has reached every continent of the globe with the exception of Antartica, and is spreading rapidly through four regions.

The WHO has also still not labelled the ongoing outbreak as a pandemic, which they define as “the worldwide spread of a new disease”.

“Unless we’re convinced it’s uncontrollable, why [would] we call it a pandemic?” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.

The geographic spread of the virus, the severity of sickness it causes, and its effects on society are factors considered in the determination of a pandemic.

The WHO has said that the word “pandemic” might cause widespread panic and fear, which will hamper the containment of the virus across the globe.

However, after the global case count breached well above the 100,000 mark, the WHO has acknowledged that the “threat of a pandemic” has dawned upon us.

“Now that the coronavirus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing.

“It would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled. The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus,” he affirmed.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, said that calling the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic “is not a decision we take lightly”.

“While we know it sounds alarming, it should not cause panic,” wrote Dr. Gupta.

While the virus has spread to nearly every continent and has gained a foothold in a worrying number of countries and territories, experts believe that the virus has reached the pandemic stage.

Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advisor, noted that some of the affected countries “have had sustained community transmission of a substantial sort”.

“Put that together, that spells pandemic,” said Dr. Schaffner.

Dr. Gupta explained that there are three general criteria for a pandemic—1) it must be a virus that can cause illness or death; 2) there must be sustained person-to-person transmission of that virus; and 3) there must be evidence of spread throughout the world.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which has been referred to as an epidemic, seems to be meeting the above mentioned criteria.

According to the CDC, an epidemic is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area”.

On the other hand, an epidemic becomes a pandemic when it “has spread over several countries or continents, usually affecting a large number of people”.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC noted in February that the outbreak was “concerning” as it has led to fatalities and has spread from person to person.

“The fact that this virus has caused illness—including illness that has resulted in death—and sustained person-to-person spread is concerning. These factors meet two of the criteria for a pandemic.

“As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the world moves closer towards meeting the third criteria: worldwide spread of the new virus,” said Dr. Messonnier.

Calling the outbreak a pandemic “speaks to specific actions being taken”, said Dr. Gupta, meaning that countries will change their strategies and no longer focus only on containment, but more on the mitigation of the virus spread.

“Every community in every country needs to prepare so that we can reduce both the health and societal consequences,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director and current president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives.

Dr. Gupta, who noted that the switch to the term pandemic was a move made “very seriously”, consulted with experts that included public health leaders, epidemiologists and clinicians about the proper terminology for the COVID-19 outbreak.
He noted that while some were “understandably conservative”, they all agreed that the virus has reached pandemic proportions.

“Now is the time to prepare for what may be ahead,” said Dr. Gupta, adding that “humanity has overcome pandemics before”.

“This is a crisis we can overcome if we can work together,” he finished.


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