NEW DELHI :
An outbreak of novel coronavirus (nCoV) in China, which has also appeared in Thailand and Japan, has highlighted attention on India’s preparedness to tackle new and emerging viruses.
The Union health ministry on Friday instructed screening of travellers from China at airports in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata via thermal scanners. It also reached out to the external affairs ministry and immigration officers to ensure the three airports are sensitized.
“The possibility of cases being identified in other countries was not unexpected, and reinforces why World Health Organization (WHO) calls for on-going active monitoring and preparedness in other countries," WHO said in a statement on 13 January.
Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses causing illnesses from common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.
So far, 41 cases including two deaths have been confirmed in China’s Wuhan City, with three confirmed cases in travellers detected in Thailand (2 cases) and Japan (1 case).
A study by Imperial College London estimates a total of 1,723 cases of the virus named 2019-nCoV in Wuhan City. “It is likely that the Wuhan outbreak of a novel coronavirus has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than currently reported," the study said. “Past experience with SARS and MERS-CoV outbreaks of similar scale suggests currently self-sustaining human-to-human transmission should not be ruled out," it added.
Girish Kumar Mahajan, a New Delhi-based public health expert, said all countries are susceptible to new viruses because their populations have no immunity against them. “In India, we are not well-equipped to identify disease-carrying people at our ports of entry. Moreover, it will not be easy to diagnose coronavirus as the symptoms resemble ordinary cold, cough or respiratory diseases," Mahajan said.
“This virus will thrive in any overpopulated country because of the close proximity of people. In a country like ours, where masses are malnourished and have poor resistance to disease in general, we are sitting ducks to the attack of new viruses," Mahajan added.
Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and humans. Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans.
“As till now, all confirmed cases of this new coronavirus infection are traced back to the Wuhan sea food market in China, it is highly likely that virus is of animal origin. India does not have imports of these items from China, so less likely to be here. But, since person-to-person transmission is yet to ascertained, travelling to affected area should be monitored," said Avinash Srivastava, a Delhi-based veterinarian.
Common symptoms include fever, cough, and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
“The virus has the potential of coming to any country including India. However, an increased level of alert and awareness is needed," said Sandeep Budhiraja, senior director, institute of internal medicine at Max Hospital in Delhi.