Mystery pneumonia virus from China spreads to Hong Kong: Are we prepared for a new epidemic?
The illness has already affected 59 people in Wuhan, China - a majority of them reportedly worked at the Huanan seafood market.
A health alert was raised in Hong Kong on Saturday, 4th January after five suspected cases of a mysterious pneumonia virus were found in visitors returning from Wuhan, China. The illness has already affected 59 people in Wuhan - a majority of them reportedly worked at the Huanan seafood market, 7 of them are in critical condition.
According to the news report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), there is no evidence of human to human transmission so far, the disease seems to be spread through animals since most patients worked at the seafood market, which also sells other animals. The WHO is keeping a close watch on China to keep the conditions from turning into another epidemic.
The Wuhan health commission has already ruled out the initial concerns of another SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak - a condition that killed more than 700 people in 2002-03. The WHO has put no travel or trade restrictions on China yet; however, people are cautioned to visit their nearest healthcare facility as soon as they notice any flu-like symptoms.
Is the world prepared for an epidemic?
An epidemic is a sudden and abnormal increase in the number of cases of a disease in a given area. Epidemics can occur when a new microbe shows up (like in the case of SARS virus that was discovered in the year 2003 in Asia), when an existing microbe suddenly becomes more virulent, when the microbe travels to a new land/area/country or when there is an increase in the susceptible population.
After the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic, the WHO had released an R&D blueprint for action to prevent epidemics. In the paper published in collaboration with Norweighein Institute of Public Health, WHO mentioned that the world is not yet prepared to deal with epidemics caused by new pathogens. Sufficient R&D and preparedness plans are required to tackle such pathogens and that involves early identification and control.
Ebola had already been there in rural Africa, the virus was identified in 1976. However, before the Ebola epidemic of 2014, it had never spread to a city with a huge population. The disease had already been present for weeks in two African countries before it was reported to the WHO. By then the disease had spread so much that its origin couldn’t be traced.
The WHO blueprint listed 11 infectious diseases in its priority list for R&D. These included chikungunya, Nipah virus infection, Ebola virus disease, Zika virus disease, SARS-CoV disease and Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic fever among others. Estimates suggest that for R&D, each disease would need funding of 1.17 billion dollars.
The importance of early reporting and control
In a WHO informal consultation meeting held in December 2015, experts suggested that we can’t rely on government reports anymore to identify infectious diseases, there is a need to keep tabs on isolated unusual events too. With increasing connectivity and fading international boundaries, it has become increasingly difficult to identify, control, and quarantine. The world needs to be prepared for the unknown and the uncertain. Rather than depending on a central authority, there is a need to empower the local community including the health workers, NGOs and other organisations so disease outbreaks can be identified and reported.
The word outbreak is often used interchangeably with an epidemic, though an outbreak is confined to a smaller geographical area. Though we can’t always control outbreaks, we can definitely keep them from turning into an epidemic by timely detection and control.
For more on this topic, please read our article on Pneumonia: Symptoms, Prevention & Treatment.
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