An evaluation of emergency guidelines issued by the World Health Organization in response to four infectious disease outbreaks

PLoS One. 2018 May 30;13(5):e0198125. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0198125. eCollection 2018.


Background: The production of high-quality guidelines in response to public health emergencies poses challenges for the World Health Organization (WHO). The urgent need for guidance and the paucity of structured scientific data on emerging diseases hinder the formulation of evidence-informed recommendations using standard methods and procedures.

Objectives: In the context of the response to recent public health emergencies, this project aimed to describe the information products produced by WHO and assess the quality and trustworthiness of a subset of these products classified as guidelines.

Methods: We selected four recent infectious disease emergencies: outbreaks of avian influenza A-H1N1 virus (2009) and H7N9 virus (2013), Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) (2013), and Ebola virus disease (EVD) (2014 to 2016). We analyzed the development and publication processes and evaluated the quality of emergency guidelines using AGREE-II.

Results: We included 175 information products of which 87 were guidelines. These products demonstrated variable adherence to WHO publication requirements including the listing of external contributors, management of declarations of interest, and entry into WHO's public database of publications. For guidelines, the methods for development were incompletely reported; WHO's quality assurance process was rarely used; systematic or other evidence reviews were infrequently referenced; external peer review was not performed; and they scored poorly with AGREE II, particularly for rigour of development and editorial independence.

Conclusions: Our study suggests that WHO guidelines produced in the context of a public health emergency can be improved upon, helping to assure the trustworthiness and utility of WHO information products in future emergencies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Disease Outbreaks / statistics & numerical data*
  • Emergencies*
  • Guidelines as Topic*
  • Humans
  • Virus Diseases / epidemiology*
  • World Health Organization*