x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Coronavirus: Public told not to panic and countries urged to report any cases

The advice from the World Health Organisation regarding the current novel coronavirus outbreak is for the public to be vigilant, but there is no need for panic.

The advice from the World Health Organisation regarding the current novel coronavirus outbreak is for the public to be vigilant, but there is no need for panic.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director-General for Health Security and Environment, said on Sunday in Riyadh that several urgent actions were needed at this point, but many things remained unknown about the virus. He urged countries inside and outside the region to increase their levels of awareness among all people, especially among staff working in the health system, and raise levels of surveillance for the new infection.

"When new cases are found, as is likely, it is critical for countries to report these cases and related information urgently to WHO as required by the International Health Regulations, because this is the basis for effective international alertness, preparedness and response."

WHO acts in accordance with International Health Regulations (IHR), which is essentially the rule book for managing potential and actual disease epidemics. The regulations were updated in 2005 to take into account increasing global trade and travel.

Specific procedures are outlined for notification, consultation and reporting of public health events - in this case, confirmed diagnosis of the novel coronavirus.

The protocols were also used during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 and the Sars epidemic, which killed more than 770, in 2002 and 2003.

Non-compliance with the rules, WHO says, could lead to "increased morbidity/mortality of affected populations, unilateral travel and trade restrictions, economic and social disruption and public outrage".

One of the IHR objectives is to minimise restrictions to trade and travel by helping countries implement appropriate public health measures.

But the regulations make it clear that time-limited measures might be recommended if an event is deemed a public health emergency.

"The extent of international travel in the modern world presents an extraordinary opportunity for international disease transmission," says WHO. "While health measures to control disease spread at borders remain one important element of the regulations, evidence shows that rapid response at the source is the most effective way to secure maximum protection against international spread of disease."

It is the job of the director general of WHO to establish an emergency committee, which is made up of leading public health experts on the IHR roster, to help determine any definite actions.

This committee can advise the director general - who is the only one with the authority to call for travel restrictions - whether an event constitutes "a public health emergency of international concern".

Dr Jaouad Mahjour, a WHO director of communicable diseases in Cairo, said no emergency committee had been set up and the focus was on surveillance and awareness.

"The director general of WHO is the only one who can declare that one event may consist of a public health risk of international concern," he said. "There is no reason to panic now. The cases are [being] investigated. We are taking the problem very seriously. Saudi Arabia is taking it very, very seriously. We are taking it seriously because it's a new virus, not because we are panicking or wanting to [create] panic."

The latest information from WHO tells healthcare providers to be vigilant of travellers returning from areas affected by the virus who develop severe acute respiratory infections.

"All member states are reminded to promptly assess and notify WHO of any new case of infection with nCoV, along with information about potential exposures that may have resulted in infection."