Coronavirus outbreak in Asia, should South Africans be concerned?
A few safety measures can go a long way in protecting travellers from infection
The ongoing spread of the coronavirus across China and other parts of the world has raised global concern. This has left many South Africans wondering if they are at risk locally and how best they can keep themselves safe from possible infection, particularly while travelling internationally.
Dr Pete Vincent of Netcare Travel Clinics and Medicross Tokai, says that while the World Health Organization [WHO] has now declared the new coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency, people should not be unduly alarmed by the coronavirus outbreak, particularly as no cases have been reported in South Africa as at 31 January. He however strongly recommends that everyone, and especially those travelling internationally, take precautions against contracting the illness and that non-essential travel to China be postponed at this time.
The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that the majority of coronavirus cases have been reported in the Hubei province in China where the outbreak started and has been linked to a seafood, poultry and live wildlife market, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the province’s Jianghan district.
To date a number of confirmed cases, of which the majority were ‘exported cases’ with a travel history from the Chinese province, have been reported in a number of countries around the world including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India, the Philippines, the United States of America, Germany, Italy, Finland and France.
“While human-to-human transmission of the virus has been reported — it would seem that animal-to-human transmission remains the primary mode for the spreading of the virus. However, the fact that some people appear to suffer only mild illness as a result of infection, while others have become severely sick, has made it difficult for global health authorities to establish the exact extent to which the virus is being passed between people at this time and even the true numbers of people who may have been infected,” says Dr Vincent.
“In addition, there are concerns that the virus could become more contagious than it currently appears to be, and global and local health surveillance agencies including the National Institute of Communicable Diseases [NICD] and South African Department of Health in South Africa therefore remain vigilant.”
Signs and symptoms
Those who have fallen ill from the coronavirus reportedly suffer coughs, fever and breathing problems. The virus can cause severe respiratory difficulties, and lead to pneumonia, sepsis and even organ failure in severe cases. As is the case with other viral infections, antibiotics are not an effective means of treatment and it appears that people who are in poor health are at greatest risk of complications from the infection. The WHO reports that the current estimates of the incubation period of the virus range from two to ten days.
“Those who have recently travelled, or are planning to travel, to international destinations such as the Far East should be particularly vigilant. As in the case of other airborne infectious viruses such as influenza, avoiding contact with people showing symptoms and washing your hands frequently can go a long way towards protecting individuals from contracting an infection,” he advises.
The following simple precautions, which are based on WHO recommendations, can assist to reduce exposure to and transmission of the virus:
Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap, towel drying them properly. An alcohol-based hand rub can also be used. Avoid close contact with others who have coughs, chest infections and/or fevers. Avoid touching your face, mouth and eyes with your hands.Avoid direct, unprotected contact with farm or wild animals, particularly when visiting live markets in affected areas.
Preferably avoid such markets. Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to prevent potential cross-contamination with uncooked foods. Although facemasks do not provide complete protection from the infection from an airborne disease such as this, they may provide at least some additional defence against infection. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or a flexed elbow when coughing or sneezing.
Dr Vincent says that these measures are a means to protect oneself from any kind of infectious illness and are especially important for international travellers to heed at this time.
He advises anyone who has severe fever, cough, difficulty breathing and/or chest pain to seek medical attention promptly, and to be sure to share their complete travel history with their healthcare practitioner.
Netcare fully prepared
The NICD reports that it has, together with the National Department of Health, developed and distributed clinical guidelines and case definitions for doctors and nurses in both the public and the private sectors to ensure improved detection, identification and response to any possible case of imported coronavirus infection.
Dr Anchen Laubscher, Group Medical Director of Netcare, says while there are as yet no patients with suspected or confirmed coronavirus in South Africa or in Africa, the Netcare Group has, as per normal, taken the necessary steps to ensure its readiness in responding to and managing any cases, should the need arise as well as to risk assess all admissions for possible exposure to the virus.
“Netcare has developed a set of comprehensive clinical risk assessment pathways in consultation with the NICD. These are used routinely and diligently as a precautionary measure by our emergency medical personnel, doctors and hospital staff to assess any patient who may have been exposed to risk factors associated with coronavirus. These clinical pathways comprehensively cover the risk assessment of these patients as well as their possible need for further management.
“Healthcare operations within the Netcare Group continue to cooperate closely with the Department of Health, the NICD and the National Health Laboratory Services in their efforts to monitor and prevent the spread of infections such as coronavirus in South Africa,” Dr Laubscher concludes.