After COVID, WHO defines disease spread ‘through air’

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WHO and Experts Agree on Airborne Disease Definition to Improve Pandemic Response

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In a move aimed at clarifying the spread of diseases through the air, the World Health Organization (WHO) and approximately 500 experts have reached a consensus on what it means for a disease to be transmitted in this manner. This effort is intended to avoid the confusion that arose early in the COVID-19 pandemic and to enhance preventive measures for both existing diseases like measles and future pandemic threats.

The Geneva-based U.N. health agency released a technical document on Thursday outlining this definition. It marks the initial step toward developing better strategies to prevent airborne transmission of diseases.

The document defines “through the air” transmission as applicable to infectious diseases where the primary mode of transmission involves pathogens traveling through the air or being suspended in the air. This terminology aligns with other established terms such as “waterborne” diseases, which are widely understood across disciplines and by the general public.

Nearly 500 experts, including physicists, public health professionals, and engineers, contributed to crafting this definition. Past disagreements among experts often centered on whether infectious particles were categorized as “droplets” or “aerosols” based on size, a distinction that the new definition moves away from.

During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, approximately 200 aerosol scientists publicly criticized the WHO for not adequately warning about the airborne spread of the virus. They argued that this led to an overemphasis on measures like handwashing while neglecting the importance of ventilation in controlling the virus.

The new definition also takes into account factors such as the risk of exposure and the severity of the disease when determining whether a disease is transmitted through the air. This marks a departure from historical practices that required stringent proof before classifying diseases as airborne, resulting in strict containment measures.

Jeremy Farrar, the current head of the Wellcome Trust charity and an advisor to the British government during the pandemic, emphasized that the new definition extends beyond COVID-19. It aims to facilitate discussions on critical issues like ventilation in various settings, ranging from hospitals to schools.

Farrar likened this development to the evolution in medical practice regarding blood-borne viruses like HIV or hepatitis B. He emphasized that widespread agreement on terminology and understanding among experts can lead to transformative changes in practice, similar to the adoption of glove-wearing during medical procedures to prevent blood-borne infections.


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