Monday 3 February 2020

Containing possible Coronavirus outbreak in Nigeria

With a death toll already in excess of 100 people and confirmed cases of infection in their thousands, the world faces a formidable public health crisis in a recent outbreak of a virus infection called coronavirus. Although it originated in China, where most of the casualties have been reported, the disease has spread across the globe with reported cases in places as far flung as the United States, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, France and Germany.

As a member of the global community, Nigeria also has a responsibility to ensure that her citizens are not caught up in this noxious eddy that has been twirling across the globe. In a country already burdened by poverty and many deadly diseases, including the Lassa fever, which is currently spreading across the states like a wildfire propelled by a harmattan wind, Nigeria cannot afford to start contending with an additional burden of the coronavirus, a disease about which very little is known for now.

Yet Nigeria has a very good reason to worry; China has become a very important business partner with many countries across Africa, including the continent’s largest economy. The country, which has become a global economic force, is now Nigeria’s biggest creditor. The Chinese are the ones handling the expansion, rehabilitation and modernisation of Nigeria’s railway sector. Besides, instead of Europe, many Nigerian businessmen and traders now prefer to import goods from China and other Asian countries. This means greater interaction between Nigerians and the Chinese at different levels. For these reasons, the Nigerian health authorities should not only give travel advice to such Nigerians but should also monitor those of them who have returned from that country in recent times. That is what countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas are doing in the wake of this outbreak.

First diagnosed on December 31 in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, coronavirus has spread swiftly, despite massive efforts to contain the spread by keeping people in quarantine. Over 30 million people have reportedly been caught up in a lockdown that has affected provinces and cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Liaoning, Fujian, Zhejiang and Guangdong. There is a strict restriction of transport movements in and out of the affected areas. The impact of the lockdown has been grave, disrupting the festive period of the Lunar New Year, when millions across the country were getting ready to travel.

From a modest figure of 17 deaths out of 600 confirmed cases reported on Friday, the numbers ballooned to about 136 deaths and 6,000 confirmed cases from the disease by Wednesday. The numbers jumped from 2,835 on Sunday to 4,515 on Monday. Yet, some medical experts are of the opinion that figures released by the Chinese authorities could be grossly understated as it could be very difficult in such a densely populated country to identify all the infected people.

Like a typical virus infection, coronavirus has no cure; and the process of producing vaccines is still at its very early stages. The virus is already being compared in some ways to the Ebola virus, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The last two, caused by two different strains of the coronavirus, are viral infections that had hit China and other parts of Asia very hard in the past. Like these better known viral infections, it is suspected that this coronavirus is zoonotic — originally from an animal host — even though it can now be passed on from human to human.

A hitherto unknown strain that has brought the membership of the coronavirus family to seven, the current virus causes severe illness in about a quarter of the people who become infected, experts say. Symptoms, according to the World Health Organisation, include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, it could lead to pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure and death. Generally, the dead so far have been people with underlying health conditions and the elderly. The youngest victim so far was a 48-year-old, while the oldest was 89, says a release by the Chinese authorities.

The Wuhan virus, as the current virus is sometimes called, however differs from the other mentioned viral diseases in the way it is transmitted. While Ebola, for instance, can only be transmitted after the symptoms have started manifesting, it is possible for coronavirus to be transmitted during the incubation period when the patient may not even know that he or she had been infected. For this reason, it is also difficult to trace contacts and isolate the patients to prevent them from coming in contact with uninfected people, as is usually the case with the management of Ebola.

Since coronavirus has no known cure, prevention remains the best form of defence. A highly contagious disease, people have been warned to stay away from crowded places and to avoid unnecessary contact. The United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says the best protection is to wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. People have also been advised to keep a distance from sick people and to “avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.” When coughing, tissues should be used to cover one’s mouth. It is expected that most people who suffer from coronavirus may eventually recover on their own; but the CDC advises that the symptoms should be treated. Those mildly sick are advised to drink a lot of liquid and observe adequate rest.

It is quite encouraging that the Nigerian authorities have started taking steps to control a possible import of the disease into the country, though no case has so far been reported. There has to be an increase in surveillance and preparation to handle a possible outbreak. In China, big hospitals have been built in a matter of days. Here, there is a need to plan for isolation centres. Perhaps the experience of handling Ebola will become handy in this case.

From Punch

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