Controlling coronavirus

February 02, 2020

The NIH has ruled out the presence of coronavirus among five patients tested for similar symptoms. But the government must ensure border control and the citizens’ health safety

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— Photo by Rahat Dar

As many as five patients, four Chinese nationals and one local citizen with travel history from Wuhan – the affected capital of Hubei province in China, were suspected of contracting the corona virus, but none has been confirmed so far to have caught the disease. Three Chinese nationals: 23-year-old Meilei s/o Meiki, Meizheng s/o Meixiaojing and Leli – the residents of DHA, Lahore – with symptoms of flu, sore throat, cough, cold and high-grade fever, breathing difficulty, chest infection and body aches were admitted in Services Hospital in Lahore. While two patients: 40-year-old Chinese man, Feng Fen, and a local citizen, Rehmat Ali, were admitted in Nishtar Hospital, Multan.

The National Institute of Health (NIH), Islamabad, which had dispatched the blood samples to Hong Kong for investigation, has ruled out the presence of coronavirus among the suspected patients.

“None of the patients was found to have contracted the virus, although five suspected patients were examined with symptoms that look like corona virus at Services Hospital in Lahore and Nishtar Hospital in Multan,” says Dr Haroon Jehangir, the director general of Health Services, Punjab.

He adds that up to 80 strains of flu have been identified but the current strain was not identifiable through any specific test due to continuous mutation of the virus. However, he says, “if someone with similar symptoms tests negative when tested for the existing identifiable strains of flu, then the samples will be sent to Hong Kong, Beirut or Rotterdam in the Netherlands for further tests”.

Dr Haroon Jehangir says that even though Pakistan could not evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, which was cut off from the outer world after severing of all air, sea, and rail and road links, Pakistan will be able to evacuate its citizens once they test negative.

The Chinese authorities had identified a new type of corona virus in the closing hours of 2019, with confirmation of first case of the new virus on December 31, 2019, therefore named the novel corona virus or 2019-nCoV.

Since the detection of the corona virus, Chinese authorities have notified more than 4,515 human infections with 106 deaths due to deadly virus which originated in a wet market of Wuhan, which has since been quarantined in an effort to prevent the spread of the viral outbreak. Although Chinese authorities have quarantined several major cities in mainland China and cancelled Lunar New Year’s events in Beijing and elsewhere, the virus has proliferated to as many as 17 countries with cases reported from China, Thailand, Japan and South Korea amid calls by many Asian populations to close the borders to Chinese visitors. Human infections have been confirmed in France, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Taiwan, Canada, Sri Lanka and as far as the United States.

Pakistani authorities, through the embassy in China, are in contact with the 500 students studying in different universities of Wuhan, as several countries including France, South Korea, Canada, Britain and the United States are preparing to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan - where the virus erupted and there were incidences with initial animal-to-human transmission and tendency of human-to-human infection.

State Minister for Health Dr Zafar Mirza has confirmed that 500 Pakistani students in Wuhan City in China were well, reassuring the families that no case of corona virus has been found among them. “We are monitoring the situation closely,” he said, adding that Pakistani students in China had been informed about the protective measures and advised to follow the instructions.

He confirmed that four Pakistani students in Wuhan had been diagnosed with coronavirus and said that they are being looked after well. He did not share names or details about the individuals. Meanwhile, more than 500 Pakistani students in Wuhan have made an impassioned appeal to evacuate them.

The World Health Organization (WHO), after initial assessment of the virus threat as “moderate”, later dubbed the risk as “high at the global level”, but did not recommend evacuation, and called on the international community to remain calm and not overreact.

The Ministry of Health, in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Authority, has established a system with thermo scans and thermal guns for screening of passengers, especially those coming from China and endemic countries including Japan, Thailand and South Korea, in order to immediately isolate and transport them under strict protocols to quarantine facilities established in the nearest specified hospitals. In this regard, Punjab government has established High Dependency Units (HDUs) at five teaching hospitals linked to international airports, adding that Services Hospital was linked to Lahore Airport, Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Hospital with Islamabad Airport, Allama Iqbal Memorial Hospital with Sialkot Airport, Nishtar Hospital with Multan Airport and Allied Hospital with Faisalabad Airport.

A CAA official at Allama Iqbal International Airport, Lahore, who requested not to be named, also confirmed that fully-trained doctors and paramedical staff of Ministry of Health equipped with relevant protective gear and testing equipment have been examining the passengers at all international airports in the country. “Any passenger with high temperature is immediately isolated for further investigation at Airport’s quarantine facility, or if need be, sent to the specified health facility near the airport,” he says, adding that CAA also ensures fumigation in the airport premises and planes.

However, talking to The News on Sunday, Prof Dr Javed Akram, the Vice Chancellor of University of Health Sciences (UHS), says that Pakistan is at a high risk of acquiring the virus due to close proximity as it shares a border with China and people travel between the two countries frequently for educational, trade and tourism purposes. Along with restricting travel to and from China, he stresses ensuring thorough flight surveillance and strict border controls at Wagha, Khunjrab and maritime arrivals with a view to preventing transmission of this highly-contagious disease.

He points out the importance of ensuring strict protocols are followed as Pakistan has not been able to establish a healthcare system to tackle such outbreaks effectively. He says that the hospitals in Pakistan are not prepared for such an emergency as they do not have proper quarantine facilities. “A quarantine facility does not mean a separate room, but a whole package including a special chamber with negative pressure ventilation and doctors, nurses and paramedical staff wearing proper protective gear. Otherwise the disease will spread easily,” he explains.

Dr Javed Akram says that this rapidly mutating virus is acquired through airborne/droplet infection, which takes away lungs’ ability to transfer oxygen from air to the blood, which leads to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). “No vaccination can be developed for a fast-mutating virus. The patients can only be provided supportive care in the absence of anti-viral or specific treatment against the malaise,” he notes.

Reflecting on the evacuation of Pakistanis from the affected city of Wuhan, Dr Javed Akram says that arrangements must be put in place to immediately quarantine them in order to contain the spread of virus among the local population in the country. He also advises that people take precautionary measures by using masks, staying hydrated and ensuring personal hygiene.

The writer is reporter of The News

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