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Coronavirus: beyond the hype

Over the past few weeks, the coronavirus outbreak has attracted mass global attention.

There is an abundance of news alerts and updates across multiple platforms on the outbreak, with some misleading information being used to portray an apocalyptic picture.

The hype has caused unnecessary apprehension, misconceptions and inappropriate practices.

The novel coronavirus seems more contagious but not as deadly as widely imagined. For comparison, at the moment it has a case fatality rate of around 2% (from current available confirmed data), which is much lower than the SARS outbreak in 2002 (10%), MERS in 2012 (34%), and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a case fatality rate of over 60%.

This virus seems to seriously affect people with lower immunity, such as older people (over 65), and those with underlying medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. Older people have a greater risk of developing serious complications, such as severe pneumonia.

We are particularly concerned about the possible spread of the novel coronavirus outbreak to countries with weaker health systems, or those experiencing instability and conflict.  An outbreak of the virus in these countries could overwhelm the health system. The impact on children and their communities would be much more severe.

CORONAVIRUS: WHAT WE DO AND DON’T KNOW

We still don’t know enough about this new virus. It will take some time to analyse disease epidemiology and learn more about it.

But there are some things, set out below, that we do know about viral outbreaks. By keeping these in mind can help us keep ourselves and those around us both safe and sane in the wake of this outbreak.

We know that washing your hands with soap and water frequently prevents spread of infection. So avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; wash your hands before and after cooking or eating, eat only fully cooked meat; avoid crowded places; and maintain some distance from sick people – these are simple steps we can all take to prevent spread of infection.

Sneezing or coughing into a tissue or flexed elbow prevents germs spreading to other people. Safely discarding used tissues immediately and washing your hands with soap and water afterwards ensures that when you touch any surfaces you will not pass on germs.

We know that the common surgical masks offer little or no protection from novel coronavirus infection. The use of masks by ordinary people* reduces their availability for health workers and greatly increases health workers’ and patients’ risk of exposure to infections.

 

Why face masks offer little or no protection against coronavirus

The World Health Organization recommends the use of masks only by health workers providing medical care, those with respiratory symptoms such as coughing or sneezing and difficulty breathing, and those caring for someone at home suspected of having an infection.We know that early identification, isolation and medical care helps prevent the infection from spreading. For containment of the virus, contact tracing, helps identify those who might have been exposed, might be carrying the virus and might pass it on to others without having any obvious symptoms or falling ill. However, it may no longer be feasible during mitigation of an uncontrolled widespread outbreak and transmission is substantial

Self-isolating limits the spread of infection to those around us. Ignoring symptoms of disease can lead to complications. Conversely, seeking medical advice from a health professional as soon as possible can both improve the recovery of infected individuals and prevent the spread of infection to others.

We know that stronger health systems are more resilient and effective in coping with such outbreaks. Universal health coverage is one among many factors which can ensure all people, in particular, those who are most vulnerable and marginalised, have access to life-saving medical services.

Countries with inadequately resourced and less robust health systems are more vulnerable to such outbreaks and are more likely to struggle to cope with prevention and control.

We know that investment in public health systems is needed for effective prevention and control of infectious diseases. Integrated disease surveillance and reporting systems enable early identification and control of outbreaks, enabling data-driven decision-making to mobilise resources to effectively contain its spread.

Outbreaks need not just more health workers, health commodities, health facilities and hospitals but also integrated environmental health and One Health systems, robust policy frameworks, regulations and their enforcement to prevent and control transmission of infectious diseases.

We know that robust infection prevention and control measures contain the spread of outbreaks, not only in health facilities but across all Public and business settings with higher risk of exposure to infections, including those from humans to humans and animals to humans.

Enforcing stringent standards for wet markets (where meat, fish and other perishable items are traded) and robust sanitary systems can contribute to effective infection prevention and control. As would promoting healthy behaviours and appropriate practices, including maintaining good nutrition, food hygiene and personal hygiene and timely notification of signs and symptoms to Public health authorities.

Last but not least…

We know that vaccines save lives. A large number of illnesses have been eradicated due to the availability of effective vaccines and improvement in immunisation coverage. Continued investment in research and development of vaccines, and public–private partnerships to ensure their equitable access for all can prevent and control future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

WHAT’S NEEDED?

While we do not know everything about this novel coronavirus yet, it has exposed a number of critical gaps and risks around outbreak preparedness, planning and response across all levels in the Asia-Pacific region.

For example, there is not enough cross-border disease surveillance. And information sharing and coordination mechanisms between public health agencies across the region are inadequate.

There’s a need for an Asia-specific CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), to enhance regional collaboration, capacity and stewardship on infectious disease surveillance and research to support locally driven effective outbreak preparedness and response.

Everyone has a role to play in preventing the spread of this outbreak – individuals should maintain their personal hygiene and adopt appropriate practices, monitor their health, seek medical care if they have symptoms and take measures to prevent further spread of the infection.

Communities should be engaged and have ownership of the response, to effectively prevent and control further spread of this outbreak.

WHAT WE’RE DOING

Save the Children is present in more than 20 countries across the Asia region. With decades of experience in providing medical services and responding to infectious disease outbreaks – including measles, diphtheria, yellow fever, cholera and most recently Ebola – we have the capacity, experience and commitment to save children’s lives on the frontline.

We are leading a global consortium of international organisations to strengthen preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks or pandemics, enabling governments and the international community with their preparedness and response efforts.

We are closely monitoring the novel coronavirus outbreak situation across the Asia-Pacific region and around the world. We are working on enhancing our preparedness and planning to ensure business continuity to enable our staff to safely respond to the needs of children and affected communities.

Save the Children knows what it takes to save children’s lives in the toughest places – and where children face the biggest potential risk from an outbreak in their community of coronavirus. We are working closely with ministries of health and partners around the world to strengthen health systems and enhance preparedness and planning – in order to ensure continued access to life-saving medical services for vulnerable children and communities.

* In China, it is required to wear a mask in public places as per government policy.

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