Health and Healthcare Systems

WHO keeps highest COVID-19 alert level in place, plus other health stories you need to read this week

Top health stories: the WHO keeps its highest COVID-19 alert in place; a warning that the world is unprepared for future pandemics; and more.

Top health stories: the WHO keeps its highest COVID-19 alert in place; a warning that the world is unprepared for future pandemics; and more. Image: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • This weekly round-up brings you health stories from the past seven days.
  • Top health stories: the WHO keeps its highest COVID-19 alert in place; a warning that the world is unprepared for future pandemics; the death toll from Malawi's cholera outbreak passes 1,000.

1. WHO maintains highest alert over COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that COVID-19 continues to constitute a public health emergency of international concern, its highest form of alert. The pandemic was likely at a "transition point" that continues to need careful management, the agency added.

It's three years since the WHO first declared that COVID represented a global health emergency. More than 6.8 million people have died during the outbreak, which has affected every country on Earth, ravaging communities and economies.

Graphic showing total confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of 29 January, 2023. Health news
More than 6.8 million people have died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Our World in Data

The availability of vaccines and new treatments has changed the pandemic situation considerably since 2020. WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, says he hopes to see an end to the emergency this year. "We remain hopeful that in the coming year, the world will transition to a new phase in which we reduce (COVID) hospitalizations and deaths to their lowest possible level,” he said.

It comes as China's National Health Commission says "the overall epidemic situation in the country has entered a low level, and the epidemic situation in various places has maintained a steady downward trend". There had been fears that Lunar New Year travel would trigger a wave of infections in rural areas less equipped to deal with them.

2. World must prepare better for future pandemics, says IFRC

The world is not prepared for future pandemics, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In its World Disasters Report 2022, the IFRC says "all countries remain dangerously unprepared for future outbreaks," despite COVID-19 killing more people than any earthquake, drought or hurricane in history.

The report says that countries should review their legislation to ensure it is in line with their pandemic preparedness plans by the end of 2023. It says they should also adopt a new treaty and revised International Health Regulations by next year that would invest more in the readiness of local communities.

"The next pandemic could be just around the corner. If the experience of COVID-19 won't quicken our steps toward preparedness, what will?" said Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of the IFRC, which is the world's largest disaster response network. He added that, "there will be no excuse for a continued lack of preparedness after having gone through three terrible years."

The IFRC also recommends that countries increase domestic health finance by 1% of gross domestic product and global health finance by at least $15 billion per year, which Chapagain described as a "good investment to make". "The important thing is there has to be a political will to commit to that," he said. "If it is there, it's possible."

3. News in brief: Health stories from around the world

The official death toll from a cholera outbreak in Malawi has passed 1,000 while cases have risen to 30,621, the highest on record in the country. Most of the deaths occurred in the two main cities of Lilongwe and Blantyre where children have recently gone back to classes after schools delayed opening to try to contain the outbreak.

More than 16 million Americans signed up for 'Obamacare' health insurance for 2023, a jump of more than 12% over last year. It's the highest since the Affordable Care Act was signed 13 years ago, according to the US government.

Dozens of indigenous children suffering from malnutrition and acute diseases have been hospitalized in northern Brazil. Last week the government declared a medical emergency in the Yanomami territory, the country's largest indigenous reservation, after reports that the pollution of waterways caused by illegal gold mining was affecting food supplies locally.

The European Union has launched a project to collect and aggregate cancer imaging data in an effort to speed up innovation and early diagnosis using artificial intelligence. The new European Cancer Imaging Initiative will give clinicians, researchers and innovators "easy access to large amounts of cancer imaging data", the European Commission says.

England's National Health Service (NHS) has announced a two-year recovery plan to help restore emergency care and frontline services, currently struggling through one of their toughest winters. The crisis has been compounded by ambulance workers and nurses striking over pay, staffing and investment levels that frontline workers say have left them ill-equipped to cope with record demand.

Spain, one of the last countries in Europe to still require people to wear masks on public transport to prevent the spread of COVID-19, will likely lift the requirement on 7 February, according to Health Minister Carolina Darias. She says the epidemiological situation in the country was stable and health emergency services had proposed lifting the restriction.


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4. More on health from Agenda

Advances in neuro-imaging and molecular biology have seen researchers locate a hidden part of the brain anatomy that monitors brain infection and inflammation. The discovery opens the door for further study of its role in brain disease, says Mark Michaud, Associate Director of Communication at the University of Rochester.

While the number of displaced people in the world is increasing to staggering levels, their access to life-saving health services remains significantly low in rural areas. Two experts explain that it is vital to reach refugee and rural communities to achieve sustainable health equity.

SARS, Ebola and COVID-19 have tested the world's ability to deal with outbreaks and pandemics. Stanley Bergman, Chairman of the Board and CEO at Henry Schein, says a global pandemic preparedness system needs sustained political will and investment to ensure the global healthcare supply chain can effectively respond to future crises.

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