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The United Nations in the Time of Disease

The world is no stranger to widespread sickness. Human history is spotted with pandemics, and after viruses were initially discovered in the 1890s, knowledge about the spread of disease grew. In 1918, just at the end of the First World War, the world was faced with the Spanish Flu which spread rapidly due to urbanization, global trade/transport, and overcrowding. Often, countries, and local communities, battled this microscopic foe individually despite the virus knowing no borders or boundaries. Places (like Princeton University, northern Italy, the island of Tasmania, and several other small islands globally) that escaped the effects of the virus almost entirely were able to implement non-pharmaceutical interventions, like social distancing and travel restrictions, which curbed the long term economic devastation. 

The World Health Organization had established the Global Influenza Programme in 1947, which later launched the Global Influenza Surveillance Network in 1952. Over 26 laboratories collaborated initially to monitor the spread and changes of the virus. Since then, the network has grown to include more than 150 institutions in over 100 countries and has been renamed the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS).

The influenza pandemic of 1957 demonstrated the effectiveness of a centralized response to global pandemics when a vaccine for the H2N2 virus was developed rapidly. As the second major outbreak in the world after the influenza of 1918, this was one the first large-scale diseases faced by the United Nations since its founding. These programs provided a solid foundation for continued UN intervention and aid. 

SARS 2002 to 2004

Before the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002, the UN established the Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network (GOARN) in 2000. The WHO utilized this network to rapidly mobilize aid, including providing clinicians, pathologists, epidemiology experts, and media specialists, for the countries initially affected by the SARS outbreak.

Swine Flu 2009

During the Swine Flu outbreak of 2009, the WHO mobilized both logistical support on the ground and laboratory support to engineer a vaccine. Operationally, in 2007, the WHO implemented the International Health Regulations of 2005 (IHR 2005) to manage collective disease reporting and responses to public health emergencies. This new system allowed the response to the Swine Flu to be swift. By July 2010, the WHO declared that the world was in post-pandemic mode after vaccines were efficiently distributed to over 90 countries. 

Ebola 2014 to 2016

Ebola Virus Disease (EVD or Ebola) formerly known as the Ebola hemorrhagic fever, spread widely in West Africa from 2014 to 2016. The WHO provided facilities to help prevent infection of healthy individuals as well as isolation facilities for the sick. Beyond direct care, medical experts spread awareness through education campaigns across affected areas. To combat the spread of Ebola, the General Assembly established the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) to manage the crisis in September 2014 with A/RES/69/1

Coronavirus 2019-present

Beginning at the end of January 2020, the WHO began issuing regular situation reports regarding the spread of COVID-19 or “Coronavirus.” In addition to providing information on the spread of the virus, the situation reports detail other necessary resources including comprehensive guidance on use of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly the use of masks in the community. The WHO continues to coordinate logistics and supply networks worldwide with distribution of ventilators, oxygen tanks, and testing kits. The Operations Support and Logistic unit (OSL) has shipped PPE and testing kits to over 125 countries. Additionally OSL has launched the Health Logistics and Technical Network to focus on technical interventions. 

Pandemic Readiness

At the beginning of 2019, the WHO released the Global Influenza Strategy (GIS) 2019-2030 and an Influenza Pandemic Guideline from the UN Medical Directors. The strategy addresses the WHO’s 13th General Programme of Work by supporting universal health coverage with disease prevention and control. The GIS additionally encourages country capacity building for healthier populations with vaccines and other antivirals. These tailored national programs will increase emergency readiness and improve pandemic response. 

Yearly, the WHO meets with a network of over 80 national research institutions, known as collaborating centres, to recommend the appropriate composition of seasonal influenza vaccinations. As the virus genetics constantly evolve, so too do the vaccinations. The GISRS provides information for these recommendations. The most recent report was presented to the WHO on 28 February 2020 detailing the recommendations for influenza vaccines for the Northern Hemisphere 2020-2021 influenza season.

For updates on global health information follow the WHO on twitter or visit their website. Current information on the COVID-19 Pandemic can be found here

Don’t forget to wash your hands.

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