First pneumonia death from mystery virus in China, world on high alert
The death of a 61-year-old man due to pneumonia from a mystery virus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan on Saturday has put the world on high alert against another new life-threatening illness. Seven of the 43 others diagnosed with the disease are in a critical condition, but no new cases have been reported since January 3.
To protect the world still smarting from the lightning spread of devastating viral diseases such as H1N1, Zika and Ebola, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued this year’s first international travel and trade alert on January 10 that advised all international travellers to report symptoms of fever with breathlessness and difficulty breathing, especially if they have travelled from China.
On January 9, China announced that the cluster of pneumonia cases reported in December in Wuhan in the Hubei Province of China was caused by a new coronavirus.
Only six viruses from the coronavirus family infect humans, which would make the new one the seventh to cause human disease. The coronavirus viruses cause diseases ranging from the common cold to very severe and life-threatening illness from Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome that caused 851 deaths since it was identified in 2012, and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected in an outbreak that started in China in 2002.
“Though currently there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission, we need to remain vigilant. WHO has shared with all Member States technical guidelines on surveillance, testing as well as infection prevention and control practices for suspected cases. WHO is in close contact with national authorities in the region and will extend all possible support to ensure core capacities are geared up for addressing potential cases that may come to countries,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director, South East Asia Region.
Some countries in the region, including Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, have started screening passengers travelling from China for pneumonia symptoms at airports. The health ministry reviewed the situation with WHO experts on Wednesday and plans to start providing travellers with risk-reduction information at airports and other ports of entry, travel agencies and conveyance operators.
“We are waiting and watching as entry screening at ports of entry like airports, seaports, train stations and border check-posts are not cost-effective. It is resource-intensive but offer little benefit,” said a health ministry official, who did not want to be named.
Though no pneumonia have been reported outside Wuhan, which has a population of 11 million, WHO said there is need for caution as the city is a major domestic and international transport hub with heavy population movement. Travel in the region is expected to significantly increase during the Chinese New Year in the last week of January, which increases the potential of infected travellers carrying to other parts of China and the world.
New viruses are formed when mutate to jump species and cause infection in humans. SARS jumped from the civet cat into humans, MERS from dromedary camel, H1N1 from pigs, and Ebola from bats, just to name a few.
The Wuhan City cases have been linked to the South China Seafood Wholesale Market, where some of the patients worked as dealers or vendors. The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market deals with fish and other seafood, including sea mammals, along with chicken, bats, rabbits and snakes.
Signs of trouble
The clinical signs of the new lung infection are mainly fever, with a few persons reporting difficulty in breathing. Clinical signs include chest x-rays showing bilateral lung infiltrates (markings) associated with pneumonia and tuberculosis.
With no infection among health care workers treating the patients, preliminary information suggests there is no significant human-to-human transmission, but till the mode of transmission is clearly established, it’s best to take precautions to stay safe.
The WHO advises people travelling in or from affected areas (currently Wuhan) to avoid close contact with people with acute respiratory infections; wash hands frequently, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment; and avoid close contact with live or dead animals. In case of respiratory symptoms before, during or after travel, travellers must seek medical attention and share their travel history with the doctor.
“The WHO advises against travel or trade restrictions on China based on the information currently available on this event,” said Dr Singh.
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