By Siouxsie Wiles 02/02/2020

With reports that several people in New Zealand have been tested for suspected coronavirus – they were all negative – and the WHO declaring the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, our government has just announced entry restrictions for foreign nationals arriving from or transiting through mainland China.  

A Public Health Emergency of International Concern

Concerned that the coronavirus will spread to countries that do not have health systems to cope with the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has declared the outbreak in China a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

This is a formal declaration by the WHO that the outbreak is a health risk and may require an international coordinated response to deal with. Under the 2005 International Health Regulations, when a declaration like this is made, countries have a legal duty to share information with the WHO.

Entry restrictions placed on foreign nationals

No doubt in response to the WHO declaration, the government have announced that any foreign nationals travelling from, or transiting through mainland China, will be denied entry to New Zealand. One of the major concerns for our neck of the woods is what would happen if the virus was exported to the Pacific via New Zealand.

We only have to look at how the measles virus recently devastated Samoa to see how outbreaks can play out in countries with under-resourced and under-staffed health services. It’s thought someone shedding the measles virus flew into Samoa from New Zealand in August last year. Because of the low MMR vaccination rates in Samoa, that caused an outbreak that infected over 5,600 of the country’s 200,000 people. There were 83 deaths, most of them children under the age of four.

It took a mass mandatory vaccination campaign and a state-of-emergency declaration that closed schools, imposed a curfew, and cancelled all Christmas celebrations and public gatherings, to bring the outbreak under control. The state-of-emergency was only just lifted at the end of December.

There is no vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus, so I dread to think what impact it could have on our Pacific neighbours.