Preventing a deadly outbreak

  • On Your Side
  • Friday, 24 Jan 2020

“WORLD War Flu”, read the screaming headline in UK’s The Sun newspaper yesterday. Notorious for sensationalising stories, The Sun may have just got it right this time though as the planet could be facing a pandemic of global proportions at the start of a new decade.

The novel coronavirus, a mysterious new strain first detected in Wuhan, China, has infected 600 plus people and killed 17.

The death toll continues to rise with the virus detected in 25 cities in China.

Other countries which have detected the highly contagious virus include Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and lately the United States and Macau.

The stringent checks via thermal scans at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) as well as other airports around the country, is an indication that Malaysia is scrambling to prevent an outbreak of this contagious disease.

Coronaviruses are named for the spikes that protrude from their membranes, which resemble the sun’s corona.

Our neighbour Singapore is investigating three people that have been hospitalised and quarantined.

They were recently in China and are exhibiting symptoms associated with the novel coronavirus.

Symptoms of infection include a high fever, difficulty in breathing and lung lesions.

Milder cases may resemble the flu or a bad cold, making detection very difficult.

The incubation period – the time from exposure to the onset of symptoms – is believed to be about two weeks.

The novel coronavirus can infect both animals and humans and in Wuhan, initial investigations revealed that the first cases were linked to workers at a market that sold live fish, animals and birds.

But Chinese scientists now believe that the virus is capable of spreading from person to person, increasing fears of a worldwide epidemic.

Thankfully, we have not detected any cases in Malaysia yet. Health authorities say some 300,000 passengers have already been screened at KLIA .

“Some have recorded high body temperature readings but none were linked to the virus,” said deputy health minister Dr Lee Boon Chye.

Even so, Dr Lee urged individuals who have been to China within the last 14 days and are having fever, cold or pneumonia to visit the nearest healthcare centre, where health officials have been instructed to be on high alert and take appropriate action to address the situation.

The Ministry of Health has taken steps to improve screening at all entry points to the country but our porous borders are a cause for concern.

As our neighbouring countries (Thailand has confirmed four cases) are affected, the risk of this strain “jumping borders” increases daily.

I doubt the MOH has the manpower to monitor every airport, air, land and sea entry point.

This needs a concerted effort by the Home Affairs Ministry (via the Immigration Department), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAAM) and even the army if necessary.

More importantly, time is of the essence. As more cases around the world are announced daily, Malaysian authorities should step up efforts to prevent the novel coronavirus from being transmitted here.

As it is, health authorities are already swamped with dealing with cases of dengue (all-time high), the re-emergence of polio and tuberculosis, H1N1 in Sabah and the spike of influenza incidences.

One has to ask why the sudden deluge of infectious, viral diseases in Malaysia?

Access to cheap and affordable air travel could be one reason as the rise of budget airlines has enabled more people in Malaysia and the region to travel easily.

This could be the reason we are seeing diseases from the 70s and 80s like TB, polio and typhoid making a comeback.

These disease are prevalent in poorer countries and foreign workers who arrive in Malaysia without proper health screenings could be carriers.

Health screenings at our borders must be made compulsory now. We have to be vigilant because the novel coronavirus should not be taken lightly.

Scientists have compared it to SARS that killed nearly 800 people across mainland China and Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003.

China is already in a public health crisis amid fears that the strain may mutate and further spread. It has now effectively shut down the epicentre of the virus.

Wuhan is in lockdown mode. All transportation to and from the city have been suspended. And no one from this city of 11 million will be allowed to leave.

The Chinese authorities said that the measures in Wuhan were needed to “effectively cut off the transmission of the virus, resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic, and ensure the safety and health of the people”.

Sale of live poultry has been banned and the mayor has cancelled public activities and gatherings during the Chinese New Year holiday.

The lunar festivities are the biggest concern because hundreds of millions of Chinese will criss-cross the country, exacerbating the crisis. The public have been advised to avoid densely populated areas.

And as the infection spreads, the World Health Organisation (WHO) stopped just short of declaring the Wuhan outbreak as a public health emergency.

Calling it “an evolving and complex situation”, it’s director-general said an expert committee would convene to discuss more evidence from its teams on the ground.

But some other countries have not waited for WHO’s findings to act now.

North Korea has banned all tourists into the country.

With Malaysia actively promoting VM2020, this would be an unthinkable step for us to take. The travel and economic backlash would cost us potentially billions.

But certain steps must be taken immediately. Screening at our airports for tourists from Wuhan may be inadequate.

Flights to and from the Chinese city should be suspended, at least until we can be sure the coronavirus outbreak is contained.

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Wuhan , novel coronavirus , pneumonia , pandemic

Brian Martin

Brian Martin

Brian Martin, executive editor of The Star, would like to come clean. He has vested interest in the proposed assessment rate hike since he’s a resident of Kuala Lumpur.


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