January 23, 2020 17:07:04
Seventeen people have died of coronavirus in China, with fears the newly identified respiratory illness could spread to Australia.
Wuhan is in lockdown, with over 500 confirmed coronavirus cases globallyA flight from Wuhan arrived in Sydney on Thursday morningHealth authorities are on high alert for patients recently returned from China who are presenting to hospitals and GPs with flu-like symptoms
The death toll from the virus, which causes pneumonia and spreads through human-to-human contact, is rising steeply. Cases have spread to surrounding Asian countries and to one man in the United States.
And now authorities are investigating whether a man in New South Wales has contracted the virus.
The central Chinese city of Wuhan, ground zero of the outbreak, is in lockdown, with all flights suspended and transport networks closed.
So how worried should we be in Australia about this new disease, and what are authorities doing to prevent it?
What are authorities doing?
The only airline offering direct flights between Australia and Wuhan is China Eastern Airlines, which flies into Sydney three times a week.
The final direct flight from Wuhan to Sydney before the lockdown began was China Eastern flight MU749, which touched down in Sydney just after 11:00am on Wednesday.
Passengers were met off the plane by NSW Health officials as well as Commonwealth biosecurity officials.
“If they have symptoms of an infectious disease, they will be assessed by New South Wales Health,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
Shortly afterwards came news of the possible coronavirus patient in NSW.
Airlines are already legally obliged to report sick passengers to biosecurity staff before the plane is unloaded, but an additional information campaign was rolled out on Thursday directed at passengers arriving from Wuhan.
Information pamphlets on coronavirus were distributed to all incoming passengers from Wuhan, while brightly coloured signage provided health warnings.
“Been in Wuhan, China? Feel unwell? Tell a biosecurity officer now,” the signage advises.
The signs also urged people to wash their hands, cover their mouths when coughing, and report to a doctor if they experienced any symptoms.
However, authorities can’t guarantee they can contain the threat at the border because coronavirus may have a long incubation period.
This means some people may not have symptoms when they arrive in Australia, but may develop them over the next week.
On Thursday the Government’s travel advisory site SmartTraveller updated its advice for travellers bound for Wuhan to “reconsider their need to travel to Wuhan”.
However, the rest of China remains at normal safety precaution level.
What if it’s detected in Australian hospitals or doctor’s surgeries?
Health workers in NSW public hospitals, as well as community-based GPs, have been issued precautionary advice to help them identify cases of the infection and apply infection-control measures.
Coronavirus has been made a ‘notifiable disease’ under the Public Health Act, meaning doctors and laboratories are required to report any suspected cases to NSW Health.
NSW Health director of health protection Jeremy McAnulty said NSW Health had the power to quarantine individuals who refused to cooperate with health officials.
“Almost always we don’t need to do that because people are very sensible and cooperative, but we do have powers, if need be, under the Public Health Act to control the spread of diseases,” he said.
All states have the power to place people in lockdown to prevent communicable diseases from spreading.
“Every one of our state public health departments has a designated isolation facility and clearly established protocols to get people to those facilities,” said Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy.
“The tests are being sped up. At the moment, it’s still taking one or two days to get a confirmed test. We’re getting much more rapid tests on hand.”
How likely is it that I could catch it?
There are no current confirmed cases of the virus in Australia.
On Tuesday, a Brisbane man experiencing flu-like symptoms who had recently returned from Wuhan was briefly placed in isolation in his home as authorities ran tests.
Within hours he had been cleared of the virus.
However, at the time Professor Murphy warned it was “quite possible” the deadly virus would reach Australia at some point.
“It’s quite possible we will get a case, but I think we are well prepared to respond,” he said.
“We currently have over 10 million [face] masks, even though we distributed 3.5 million during the bushfires, so we’ve got a good stockpile.
“We keep all sorts of things, particularly drugs, EpiPens, thermometers, so if there is a very large emergency of a public health significance that overwhelms the suppliers in state and territory health services we can activate that stockpile and get stuff out.”
What can I do to protect myself?
Everything you’d normally do to protect yourself during a regular cold and flu season, including washing your hands vigorously and avoiding close contact with anyone with cold and flu symptoms.
If you have recently been to Wuhan, or have been in contact with someone who has, and develop flu-like symptoms, you should seek medical attention.
Typically, symptoms include an elevated temperature, fever, a sore throat, coughing or breathlessness.
If you develop these symptoms, see a GP urgently but call ahead to let them know, so they can take measures to protect other patients.
What does the World Health Organisation say?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has the power to declare virus outbreaks a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC).
An outbreak can only be a PHEIC if it poses a risk to more than one country, and if it requires a coordinated international response to control.
Past PHEICs include the outbreaks of SARS, bird flu, and the Ebola and Zika outbreaks.
On Thursday, an emergency WHO committee met to decide whether to designate coronavirus as a PHEIC, but WHO officials decided to defer the decision.
Director-general of the WHO Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the committee would reconvene tomorrow.
“This an evolving and complex situation,” he said.
“The decision about whether or not to declare a public health emergency of international concern is one I take extremely seriously, and one I am only prepared to make with appropriate consideration of all the evidence.
“Today there was an excellent discussion but it was also clear that to proceed we need more information.”
How does it compare to past outbreaks?
The virus belongs to the same family of coronaviruses as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people globally during a 2002-03 outbreak that also started in China.
Its symptoms include fever and difficulty in breathing, which are similar to many other respiratory diseases and pose complications for screening efforts.
Dr McAnulty said on Wednesday that coronavirus may not be as aggressive as SARS.
“The information that we have to date suggests that it is not as infectious as diseases like SARS, but we don’t know all of the information,” he said.
“So it is prudent to be cautious until we learn more about this situation.”
A vaccine for the virus is yet to be developed.
@billbirtles tweet: Passengers on the last flight from #Wuhan to Shanghai before the lockdown arrive to temperature checks at Pudong airport. #coronavirus #China
What about the financial impacts of the outbreak?
So far, financial markets have had a muted response to the outbreak.
However, concerns are mounting with both the Australia and New Zealand dollars — the two countries closely tied to the health of the Chinese economy — experiencing some weakness.
Australia, in particular, is the country most likely to take a hit if the virus gets out of control.
Chinese tourists are our biggest market, with more than 1.4 million making their way down under in the last financial year, spending around $12.6 billion.
But there are broader economic implications.
During the 2002 SARS outbreak, consumer confidence was whacked across the Asia region, leading to reduced consumption, demand and investment.
A study by Australian economist Warwick McKibbin estimated the cost of SARS at $40 billion.
From an economic perspective, the current outbreak couldn’t come at a worse time.
Global growth is tepid, with the International Monetary Fund this week again lowering forecasts, with central banks preparing to cut interest rates to record lows.
January 23, 2020 15:45:45