What is a pandemic? Is the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) already one?
READ: WHO warns of pandemic
No and no, according to Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, World Health Organization representative to the Philippines —and he can’t tell the last time the world witnessed a pandemic.
“A pandemic would be a disease that is spreading uncontrollably, affecting all continents, across the world,” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
But since there have been “changes in the classification in how we talk about pandemics. We haven’t recently had a global pandemic,” Abeyasinghe added.
Regardless of a pandemic’s more technical definition, the WHO official said COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, is still not considered a pandemic.
“It’s not uncontrolled transmission,” he said. “Containment efforts seem to be working in many of those places.”
“And in many of the countries the numbers of cases are still in double digits, not even a hundred cases,” Abeyasinghe added.
“The respective governments are still in a containment phase…So this situation does not warrant a classification of a pandemic as yet.”
Currently, countries outside China are in a “containment phase,” attempting to prevent the disease from spreading to communities.
“In a containment phase you need to make sure that anybody suspected of having the disease or is confirmed is excluded, isolated and managed,” the WHO official said.
Abeyasinghe said a pandemic would mean that there is “uncontrolled community transmission.”
“Isolation will no longer be the aim of the situation. The aim at that point would be to manage the severely ill patients and prevent the deaths [from happening],” he said. “This is a major strategic shift from a containment phase.”
He emphasized the need to prepare for this in advance. “That would mean they (governments) would identify which facilities they are going to manage those severely ill patients.”
Not everyone will also need to be tested and isolated.
“Naturally in that scenario, people who are mildly ill will be staying at home. They will not be boarded in hospitals,” the doctor said. “But if you are severe or critical you need to be managed in hospitals.”
He said some hospitals may need to be “repurposed” to accommodate that large number of patients.
The 2009 swine flu or H1N1 was called a pandemic, but the WHO changed its classification of pandemic shortly afterwards, he noted.
Using current definitions, H1N1 influenza is not considered a full-fledged pandemic, reportedly because of its level of severity.
With local transmissions already detected in some of these countries, the WHO is discussing with nations how to prepare for an actual pandemic.
“We already have more cases of COVID-19 than SARS,” Abeyasinghe pointed out.
He admitted the situation has changed in recent weeks, especially with the spike in cases in countries like South Korea and Italy.
Asked if the WHO agrees with experts claiming that it’s possible COVID-19 will eventually become a seasonal pandemic like the common flu, he said: “That’s speculation.”
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