China virus: Step up preparedness

China virus: Step up preparedness

AFP Photo

A new virus, which has already claimed the lives of 17 people in China, infected hundreds and is spreading rapidly, has set alarm bells ringing across the world. Known as the coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, the virus came under the spotlight in December, when the first cases were reported from Wuhan in central China. The number of cases reported has grown rapidly – jumping seven-fold just in the last week. As worrying is the swift geographic spread. Cases have been reported from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau and the US. This rise in numbers and the geographic spread of the virus can be expected to grow in the coming days as millions of Chinese travel during the New Year holidays. Understanding of the virus is still at a preliminary stage. What we do know at this point is that 2019-nCoV belongs to the same family as the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) viruses. Those who were infected first in China are believed to have caught the virus from Wuhan’s live animal and seafood markets. However, transmission is now taking place between people. Climate change and globalisation are unhelpful. While warmer temperatures allow certain pathogens to survive for longer periods, globalisation encourages more travel, facilitating the spread of viruses.

The coronavirus outbreak has brought back memories of the H1N1 and SARS epidemics that swept through Asia and other parts of the world in the 2000s. Poor preparedness resulted in SARS spreading to 37 countries in 2002-03. Then in 2009, the H1N1 pandemic afflicted nearly four lakh people in Asia. This time around, Chinese health authorities seem to have acted with alacrity. They have put Wuhan under a complete lockdown so that infected people do not travel and spread the virus. But it will be best if the Chinese government ensures transparency about the disease and its actions, unlike in the past when it hid information to avoid global criticism. Opacity will not help the world tackle the virus effectively. India has stepped up screening at airports to ensure that infected persons do not enter the country. Health authorities must ensure that our public health system is geared to meet the challenges that a possible coronavirus outbreak throws up. Facilities for isolation, treatment and prevention of the illness must be stepped up. Importantly, public awareness campaigns are necessary so that those with symptoms seek treatment immediately. Steps must be taken to ensure that rumours do not trigger panic.

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