The World Health Organization (WHO) has elected not to declare an international public health emergency in response to the outbreak of a deadly new coronavirus that emerged from China for the time being as suspected cases begin to emerge in Australia.
The virus, believed to have first broken out at a fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading across the country and abroad, with confirmed cases reported in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Thailand, the US and Vietnam, has already killed 25 people and infected more than 800.
WHO’s Emergency Committee convened yesterday to decide how to tackle the escalating health issue and despite divided views over the gravity of the outbreak, eventually voted to cut short announcing a global health emergency.
“Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Dr Tedros said the decision should not be viewed as a sign WHO does not consider the new coronavirus outbreak extremely serious and that the situation was being monitored around the clock and he would not hesitate in reconvening the Emergency Committee if it worsens.
He said health authorities know the virus, which is able to be spread between humans, can trigger severe disease and prove fatal, but causes only mild symptoms for most people.
Of the 25 people who have died from the virus, he said most had an underlying health condition such as hypertension, diabetes or cardiovascular disease that weakened their immune systems.
“There is still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know the source of this virus, we don’t understand how easily it spreads, and we don’t fully understand its clinical features or severity,” Dr Tedros explained.
“WHO is working with our partners night and day in China and other affected countries, at the regional level and here at headquarters to fill the gaps in our knowledge as quickly as possible.”
Fears over the coronavirus reaching Australia rose during the week as numerous people, including four from New South Wales and two from Queensland, suspected of having the disease were quarantined and subjected to daily tests.
All have been cleared to date and there are no confirmed cases in Australia.
WHO’s advice to countries around the world in the wake of the outbreak includes recommending exit screening at airports as part of a set of comprehensive containment measures.
Lockdown measures have been put in place in China to stop the spread of the virus, with all transport out of Wuhan suspended until further notice.
In Australia, local health authorities ramped up efforts to keep out the new coronavirus earlier this week, announcing that all travellers arriving at Sydney airport from Wuhan would face additional biosecurity measures.
There are three direct flights between Sydney and Wuhan each week.
The latest measures will see all flights met by border security and biosecurity staff and NSW health officials.
Passengers will be provided with an information pamphlet in both English and Mandarin outlining the symptoms of the virus, which include cough, fever and breathing difficulties, and be asked to identify themselves at the border if they suspect they might have the disease.
Information warning people about the disease and alerting them to seek medical attention if they notice symptoms have also been put in place at all other ports of entry.
Despite the moves, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy was quick to assure the public there was no cause for alarm and that the risk to Australia remained relatively low, although admitting that full prevention was difficult.
“I think the important thing to remember is this border screening; you cannot absolutely prevent entry into the country of a disease like this,” Professor Murphy said on Tuesday.
“The incubation period is probably about a week, many people who are incubating will be completely A-symptomatic and without any symptoms or fever. So the purpose of borders, border measures is to identify those people that we can where there’s a high risk and to ensure that people with a high risk know about it and get attention.”
Professor Murphy said Australia was monitoring the outbreak as it evolves and that the country was well prepared to respond.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) Federal Secretary Annie Butler and Commonwealth Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer Alison McMillan met today to discuss the newly identified coronavirus and are confident Australia is well prepared to respond and will adopt a cautious and strategic approach as it monitors the situation.
Yesterday, the Australian Government Department of Health released Information Sheets for emergency departments and primary and community health workers alerting them to the situation and giving them knowledge to help them respond to the coronavirus.
Key points include considering the presence of coronavirus infection in patients with fever and respiratory symptoms who recently travelled to anywhere in China, especially Wuhan, transferring patents with severe respiratory illness to EDs for investigation, and contacting state and territory public health units or communicable disease branches for advice on suspected cases.
The Information Sheets also list epidemiological and clinical criteria to help health professionals classify a patient as a suspected case.
The criteria includes a patient having travelled to Wuhan or an area with evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in the past 14 days before the onset of illness, in conjunction with sudden and severe onset of respiratory infection requiring hospital admission.
In taking action for patients who meet criteria for the coronavirus, health professionals are directed to place a surgical mask on the patient, place them in an isolated room, and use standard and contact transmission precautions including disposable fluid resistant gown, gloves and eye protection while reviewing the patient
Further, Emergency Departments are instructed that if a patent is in respiratory distress, hypoxaemia or shock, to immediately give supplemental oxygen and empirical antibiotics and for those not in distress, to provide early supportive therapy as required.