The Jakarta Post
The decision of Chinese authorities to lock down 15 cities against the further spread of a deadly new coronavirus shows the severity of the threat. While questions linger about the effectiveness of such a large quarantine as a public health measure, transportation restrictions are deemed crucial to contain the virus outbreak, which has affected almost 2,000 people, who are mostly in China and other parts of Asia. So far 14 countries have confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, which shares a genetic structure similar to the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus.
In Indonesia, the Transportation Ministry on Friday temporarily closed air transportation links to and from Wuhan, a city in Hubei province where the coronavirus was first reported. Health authorities are screening arriving passengers with thermal scanners across Indonesia. On Friday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo asked all citizens to remain alert against the new coronavirus. He has ordered Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto to monitor developments of the outbreak.
So far, no Indonesian has been confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. A patient being evaluated for the coronavirus at the Sulianto Saroso Infection Hospital in Sunter, North Jakarta, has been confirmed as not being infected, a hospital spokesperson said on Saturday.
The coronavirus has raised global alarm because of its high fatality level — killing at least 56 people by Sunday. The infections were reported to first affect workers in fish and bird markets in Wuhan before many more became sick — although the precise source and cause of the illness is still being investigated. As the new coronavirus could be airborne, travelers, particularly those traveling to China and other countries with similar reported cases, are at a greater risk of transmission.
The government has taken the commendable measure of identifying and immediately handling arriving passengers suspected of being infected. Inbound passengers, especially from affected areas, now must fill out health cards, which explain common disease symptoms, and it is advising them to immediately seek medical care should they fall ill or get feverish within two weeks after arrival. The health alert notice is actually a standard procedure but its application is now being heightened because of the global alert over the outbreak.
Terawan said there was no need to panic about the spread of the mysterious virus. He cited the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, when health authorities were able to immediately find infected people — including through thermal scanners to detect fevers in incoming passengers — and swiftly take necessary steps to prevent the spread of the disease. The SARS epidemic, which also came from China, killed about 800 people worldwide in two years. However, the health minister should not show off a relaxed attitude; he arrived without a mask at an office building to check on reportedly affected persons from China on Thursday.
As of Sunday, the World Health Organization had not yet declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern, earlier imposed regarding the Ebola and Zika viruses. Compared to SARS, the mortality rate of the coronavirus is much lower, although the number of cases has continued to climb. This may have led the global health authority to perceive that the latest outbreak is less severe.
Still, the new deaths from the outbreak have caused growing panic. People lack adequate information on what to do when facing the new health risk. In Indonesia, many thought that currently available pneumonia vaccines could protect them from the new coronavirus. People reportedly rushed to medical facilities and asked for the pneumonia vaccine after reports about the latest outbreak started coming out. In fact, pneumonia deaths are caused mainly by bacteria and the existing vaccines are only effective to prevent pneumococcal bacteria and could not fight the virus that caused the latest virus outbreak.
Pulmonologist Erlina Burhan of Persahabatan Hospital has told the press there are two available types of pneumonia vaccines: the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23).
The PCV13, marketed under the brand name Prevnar, can provide immunity against 13 strains of streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, the most common cause of pneumococcal infection in humans. The PCV13 is primarily for babies and under-2s and its protection lasts at least three years. Meanwhile, the PPSV23, brand name Pneumovax 2, offers protection against 23 strains of pneumococcal bacteria. The PPSV23 is recommended for adults 65 years or older and for those aged 2 or older at increased risk of disease.
In developing countries, including Indonesia, Haemophilus influenza type B (Hib) bacterium is the major cause of pneumonia and meningitis. Hib vaccine has been included in the national immunization program for babies. Yet no vaccine had been found to prevent and overcome the new virus outbreak in Wuhan, Erlina said.
Like other viruses, the new coronavirus may not always sicken people, especially those who are fit and healthy. The viral airborne disease spreads through droplets that enter into the respiratory system. Hence, one key to survive the current outbreak is to maintain health and avoid getting sick. Applying a healthy lifestyle — eating a balanced diet, avoiding raw and undercooked meats, routinely washing hands with soap and adhering to respiratory hygiene and/or cough etiquette — may help protect ourselves and others from this mysterious illness. This is a simple way to prevent respiratory diseases that relatively few are aware of.