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February 22, 2020

The virus

Opinion

February 22, 2020

As the number of coronavirus patients gains traction, the world gears itself for a potential pandemic. What does this hold for Pakistan?

Said to have originated in a seafood market in the Wuhan city of China, the contagious coronavirus infection has transcended international borders with approximately 8000 cases in 25 different countries including the US, Australia, Canada, Britain, Spain, Germany, France among others.

Latest reports put coronavirus deaths over 1500 with more than 66,000 confirmed cases across China. The death toll has surpassed the number of deaths in China’s SARS epidemic in 2002-2003.

The infamous seafood market known as Huanan seafood wholesale market sold a variety of live and dead animals for human consumption such as bats, snakes, beavers, camels, chickens, crocodiles among others. The market was arranged in the form of closely squeezed outdoor stalls. One stall selling chickens or hares would abut a vendor preparing bats or snakes. Such markets where illegal wildlife trade occurs in close proximity of humans provides opportunity for infections, both viral and bacterial, to jump from animal hosts to humans.

We in Pakistan share geographical borders with China and host a number of Chinese citizens in light of strong diplomatic relations. But this is not the real problem. The real threat to our society is our own people. We perceive and handle things in ways unusual to the rest of the world. Knowing the contagious nature of coronavirus, many Pakistanis broke quarantine measures and flew from China to Pakistan, thus endangering the lives of fellow countrymen.

According to the Foreign Office, approximately 28,000 Pakistani students are present in China with approximately 5000 in Wuhan, China, not forgetting those who did not register with the embassy. Our government should take special measures to ensure their safety and that all quarantine measures are fulfilled before any of them returns to Pakistan.

The coronavirus infection causes respiratory symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath and fever. The virus is transmitted from animals to humans and now between humans via respiratory droplets of infected individuals released during coughing and sneezing, by touching an infected person’s hands or face, or by touching things such as doorknobs that infected people have touched.

Currently, there is no cure or vaccine available for the virus. Once again we are forced to take solace in the idea that ‘prevention is better than cure’. The most effective preventive measures include: (1) avoiding people who have cough or sneeze; (2) always coughing or sneezing in a tissue which is to be discarded; (3) wearing face masks in public such as the N95 mask; and (4) employing a proper hand-washing technique.

On Dec 31, 2019 Chinese public health authorities released an epidemiological high alert and the very next day on Jan 1, 2020 closed the local seafood market which was said to be the hub of this crisis. This was followed by Wuhan being placed under quarantine. Furthering the attempts to curb the viral proliferation, an expert team of physicians, epidemiologists, virologists, and government officials was formulated along with the construction of a 1000 bed hospital, just under 10 days, specifically for coronavirus patients. The construction of a second hospital is underway.

The coronavirus infection causes pneumonia of unknown origin and can be diagnosed based on clinical characteristics, chest radiographics, and ruling out of common bacterial and viral pathogens that cause pneumonia. Respiratory specimens such as throat swabs are tested for common viruses. Suspected patients are quarantined using airborne precautions and N95 masks are used to prevent viral spread through coughing and sneezing.

So far no case of coronavirus has been detected in Pakistan, not forgetting that we are lagging in diagnostic capabilities. Healthcare professionals must be instructed to pay close attention to symptoms of sore throat, cough, breathing difficulty, runny nose and fever.

Pakistan already has its fair share of infectious diseases to fight against, ranging from dengue to typhoid to polio to congo virus. Our strained healthcare system cannot afford to combat yet another deadly viral contagion.

The writer is a doctor based inIslamabad.

Twitter: @rajakhalidshab